“In brotherly love there is the experience of union with all men [and women], of human solidarity, of human atonement. Brotherly love is based on the experience that we are all one. The differences in talents, intelligence, knowledge are negligible in comparison with the identity of the human core common to all men.”
It is this kind of brotherly love that motivated medical professionals everywhere to put themselves in harm’s way, risking their own safety and potentially the safety of their loved ones for the sake of saving others. This is partly out of a sense of duty and dedication to work, but more so is an example of the love they feel radiating outward for their patients: they see the stranger in the hospital bed before them as someone’s loved one and a fellow human being.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu was fond of the Zulu proverb in his native South Africa, which he explained thusly:
“Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language. It speaks of the very essence of being human…It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’[…] Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness…We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
This is the point at which love expands far beyond our loved ones and ordinary social channels to encompass love for all. We may be limited in our ability to literally meet and love everyone in person, but we can have infinite empathy intellectually and that will create universal empathy as an emergent property.
There is a similar phrase in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, ichariba chode, which roughly translates to, “Even if we only meet by chance, we are still brothers and sisters.”
The mystics of all religious traditions have taught us that love is not to be sought; love is what we are. Love is what is here in each and every moment. It is more about allowing it to flow through than forcing it out by effort.
Learning is integral to what it means to be alive, and a fundamental part of reality.
Distinguishing that which is living and that which is not living, is if it has the ability to learn. A stone, a grain of sand, even a star cannot learn. There is no means in these inanimate objects, no matter how complex or massive, by which they can be said to learn. Instead, these inanimate objects are entirely beholden to what is known as entropy. Following the second law of thermodynamics, these objects will move irreversibly towards ever greater disorder.
Life, on the other hand, fights against entropy and disorder. The great physicist Erwin Schrödinger described this property of life as “negative entropy”, which is the ability to turn disorder into order. At its most basic level, to learn means to acquire new information that somehow changes us. Learning is the process of how we move through the world and update ourselves so as to be able to better interact with the world in the future. Learning is a process of growth and change. At its most profound level we see learning as a process of creating order from disorder in an attempt to make meaning. We take the complex world that we experience and attempt to make sense of it via our very limited cognitive apparatuses.
Our perceptions of the world do not ‘accurately’ reflect what is truly “out there.” Instead, our perspectives are a construction of that outside world. For example, we see a table which is solid, but we now know that table is 99.5% empty space. Similarly, take color perception. Color is not a property of light that exists outside and independent of ourselves. Instead, color is an active construction of our minds. There have been many tests that have proven this to us. One of the simpler ones is that under slightly different conditions the same wavelength of light can be perceived as different colors.
On a more metaphorical level, learning is coming to understand the truth and reality behind all the stories that we tell ourselves. Via learning we can come to see these stories not as literal expressions but instead as metaphorical language that was used to try to express great truths.
Part of both aspects of learning is recognizing that we have limited cognitive resources and reality is infinite relative to our endowments. Learning is to be aware of our ignorance and how it can detract us from our purpose. It is because of our limitations that we don’t “see” reality as it “truly” is but a construction of it by our minds. Yet another aspect of learning is that with learning more, learning is called forth. Reality has an onion-like structure. Each answer seems to open up new possibilities, new questions and new opportunities to learn. The more I know, the more I know what I don’t know.
Robert Kegan, a psychologist at Harvard University, has shown that part of what learning is, for humans, is the creation of meaning and purpose. He went so far as to state that humans don’t create meaning as a secondary function, we are meaning making machines. He argued that there are five distinct ways in which we humans go about creating meaning, and we move between these ways throughout our lives. The first two are mainly done in childhood. The remaining three ways of creating meaning are done by adults. Of these, the first way is via a ‘socialized mind’ in which how we create meaning is largely derived from the society and institutions in which we find ourselves. The other two ways involve us breaking out of our socialized minds and coming to create meaning wholly by ourselves.
Kegan views meaning-making as fundamental to understanding humans and as something that develops throughout our lives. We learn differently at different stages in our lives because we are constantly expanding our horizons, our conceptual frameworks and cognitive tools. A child who is at an early stage of mental development can’t see beyond itself, while someone at the highest stage of mental development sees the complete interconnectedness of life and every black and white as different shades of gray. This is an example of LLP radiating outward, from learning about ourselves and gradually coming to learn more and more of the world.
Continuous learning makes life meaningful and is anathema to the ego—which is one of the biggest impediments to human flourishing. The more we learn, the more we realize how little we know, and the more we can begin to cultivate awe and wonder at all that life has to offer. This can instill a sense of humility. The amazement we see in a child’s eyes when she spots something new will begin to flicker in ours too. We can begin to see each day as a chance to learn something new. You may learn something about one of your coworkers. Perhaps he will share something with you because a level of trust has been built. You may learn more about courage in the face of death and disease.
Ultimately, learning can also be seen as an expression of love. With true learning we may bring about humility, gratitude, appreciation of the beauty of diversity and interconnectedness of life and acquire the wisdom to pass this same perspective on to others.
The lyrics to the Beatles song, “The Inner Light,” are a reminder that learning can take place anywhere, especially from home.
“Without going out of your door
You can know all things on Earth
Without looking out of your window
You could know the ways of Heaven
The farther one travels
The less one knows
The less one really knows
Arrive without traveling
See all without looking
Do all without doing”
The lyrics from this song were actually taken (almost verbatim) from chapter 47 of the Daodejing, an ancient Chinese text from the religious tradition of Daoism. The text is known for being cryptic, with its abundance of paradoxical phrases. But we need not delve into the deeper meanings of the above lines to see how they apply to our situation today.
In a very real and literal sense, you can know just about everything that humans have ever known without leaving your house: books, the internet, television, and other forms of media have made this abundantly possible, if only one has the time to sift through this mountain of recorded wisdom (which to some extent, we do now!).
T.H White captures much of what we are trying to express with these thoughts: “You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
Learning, like loving and playing, is truly infinite. The more we learn, the more we realize how much more there is to learn and how we knew much less than we thought we did. This is why Socrates, one of the wisest figures in human history and the father of all Western philosophy, repeatedly maintained that he knew nothing. Even in his time, he was regarded as one of the wisest individuals in the world. But because he was so wise, he realized the truly grand scope of our ignorance about the world. Even today, well over 99% of the physical world is constituted by a substance we know nothing about—dark matter.
So just as there is a near-infinite amount of knowledge out there for us to learn in our books and internet databases, there is an equally infinite amount of knowledge about the universe that nobody has, at least at this time.
But knowledge about the outside world is just one form of knowledge. Sages throughout history, Socrates among them, stressed the importance of “the examined life,” the kind of learning that has to do with knowing oneself and using this knowledge to constantly improve oneself. As Confucius explained,
We tend to ‘learn’ some things but ‘study’ others. For instance, a child learns to walk but an entomologist studies the behavior of ants. We learn something practical; we study something theoretical. In learning the focus is on the learner; in studying the focus is on the subject. In learning something new, a man improves himself. He either acquires a new skill or becomes more proficient in an old one. In studying, a man acquires new knowledge but this new knowledge need not make any difference to him as a practical man.
In one of Aldous Huxley’s novels, one of his characters remarks, “I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.” Just as the physical health of the whole of us depends on the health of each of us, so too does the social health of the world depend on how good each of us are at reforming ourselves—how good we are at learning in the sense of LLP, a learning that makes a difference to who we are rather than simply what we know (or think we know).
Luckily, this kind of learning is perfectly accessible from our homes. Before there was the internet, before there was science, before even there were books or literacy, people learned about themselves through their own minds—through contemplation and the observation of thoughts and behavioral patterns. In many cultures, this was perfected through practices like yoga and meditation. Contemplative practices such as these teach us about ourselves, and are a great way of learning from home. They also help us learn how to learn better because they reveal to us the way our minds work and help us to better focus our mental energies.
In older times, people also learned in communal settings: telling stories around the fireplace, sharing observations of the natural world with one another, and having philosophical debates. But most importantly, probably, was the ability to learn and pass on new skills and techniques.
We evolved in close-knit tribal communities. The key to our success was our ability to work together and problem solve. A driving urge behind working together was to mutually learn from each other and play at the same time while learning. In order to do this, we needed to be able to communicate efficiently and with as little error or misunderstandings as possible. This necessity meant that we needed to be good at picking up subtle signals from our fellow humans. In other words, we learned not only about ourselves, but also about others and our relation to others.
Learning is not an isolated or individual enterprise. It is through learning and sharing with others that we have evolved and accumulated so much knowledge and yet we want to learn even more. Learning is the urge in each of us through which human evolution carries its march forward!
Learning at its best is cooperative, not competitive. In his time, Confucius believed people had forgotten this, noting that, “Men of antiquity studied to improve themselves; men today study to impress others.” This once again relates to his distinction between studying and learning. Studying is more like book-learning. It can certainly be used to improve oneself—to learn facts that are important to know. But it is often used simply to sound smart and superior to others. Studying to improve yourself, in contrast, is what the learning in LLP is all about.
Some of the greatest thinkers in the world viewed learning as a sort of play. Newton wrote that, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Play is an intrinsically self-motivated behavior. It is not coerced or forced. It is an act or set of actions that are done for their own sake. Play is observed across many different species. Animal shelters across the country have been noting spikes in the rates of adoption. Many people have been recently acquiring new pets, whether it is out of the compassion of their hearts that want to see all creatures cared for, or just simply because there is no more time for them to be at home and care for animals.
Pets are known to be therapeutic companions and during the Covid pandemic, they were especially so. There is something very refreshing about spending time with creatures whose lives—in contrast to ours—was relatively unchanged by the pandemic. They are not afraid or anxious, as many of us are. They are comforting constants in our lives. They also provide us with an extra sense of meaning and purpose at a time when we need it most: they owe their comfort to us and we feel a purpose in taking care of them, which includes playtime.
Gordon Burghardt, a professor at The University of Tennessee, who studies animal behavior has defined five criteria to distinguish play from other behaviors. For Burghard, for something to play it must not be fully functional. That is, the action is not purely utilitarian. Instead, the action is often repeated and starts spontaneously from an inward generated design, not as a reaction to some outside stimulus. The action is also quite often missing a final act, such as with play fighting there is no killing or injury at the end. Finally, play only occurs when the organism is in a relaxed state, which is why we observe zoo animals in more play than their wild counterparts. Play is a deep drive in us, but it also appears to be a general drive of all (or at least a great many) organisms. Some recent research has even theorized that play is essential to more efficient learning strategies.
He further states
“One of the most important features of play is that it is only engaged when an animal is in a “relaxed field,” meaning they are adequately fed, healthy, and not under imminent predator threat. This is why we see animals playing in captivity more than we do in the wild, since they are relatively protected and their temporal needs are met. When animals in captivity are NOT playful, we know that they are stressed and the stress may come from the captivity itself.
Scientists across disciplines have been coming to study and realize how important play is in terms of development (shaping brains) as well as its role in creativity, innovation, and health in humans, but also in other species.
Adults play games like poker or chess, participate in sports, grow gardens, learn to play the guitar, read novels, go to parties, walk through woods—and do thousands of other things—for no good reason except that the activities are fun. And we should not undersell the importance of all of this. It is clear that we need play in our lives.
These facets of play may also be linked to the power of play and innovation. Many great thinkers have talked about their work not as work but as a great play. Albert Einstein described the workings of his own mind as “combinatory play.”
When we look at the history of innovations we also find acts of play weaved throughout such histories. We can even see play at work in terms of learning strategies when we look at innovations, inventions, and creativity. In a TED talk by the science writer Steven Johnson we learn the fascinating history of how the modern computer may have started with a flute and find out that, contrary to Thomas Edison, necessity may not be the mother of innovation. Along the way there were the inventions of organs, to push lever pianos, harpsichords, which were the first “typewriters.” The automated organ was originally invented in Baghdad over 1,000 years ago.
The history of innovation, new ideas come because they are fun. This presents us with a hope for the future where people are having the most fun and at the most play also means the most innovations. Contrary to some popular belief that leisure detracts from innovation, it seems as if play (which leisure can help to promote) is the wellspring from which innovation arises
Think back to when we were children and played so freely and often. What was the purpose of the thousands of different games that we made up? What was the purpose of building forts and going on treasure hunts in our neighborhoods? Why did we run around playing tag? It was all because the activity was itself intrinsically motivating and fulfilling. We laughed and cheered and lived in those moments because in those moments we felt alive. No wonder it was and still is so hard for parents to wrest their children away from play to return to the other world.
We may not have as much time as children to run around and play games all the time, but we find ways to play as adults- playing and watching sports, going out to restaurants or concerts, board games and card games, video games, musical instruments to play or learn how to play.
But what will really set us free and help us flourish in the realm of play is to realize that it, along with loving and learning, can be viewed more as a state of mind than an activity—something that we can in fact bring with us to any and all activities. Alan Watts once said,“ This is the real secret of life, to be completely engaged with what you are doing here and now. And instead of calling it work, calling it play.”
At a philosophical level the diversity which we observe in the natural world is nature’s way of playing. Through play we experience the joys of the diversity that nature offers.
There is no agreed-upon answer to identify flourishing. It is something like the United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart quip about “knowing it when he sees it.”
Common definitions of flourishing include:
Within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience.”
…is a state where people experience positive emotions, positive psychological functioning and positive social functioning, most of the time. In more philosophical terms this means access to the pleasant life, the engaged or good life and the meaningful life […] It requires the development of attributes and social and personal levels that exhibit character strengths and virtues that are commonly agreed across different cultures (Seligman, Steen, Park and Peterson, 2005).
Another view,that of Tyler Vanderweel of Harvard university, is that Flourishing is associated with five central domains: happiness and life satisfaction, mental and physical health, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and close social relationships.
All these definitions aim to place flourishing as the best possible outcome of an individual human life. These definitions also contrast flourishing with its antithesis, which is a state of languishing.
On the other hand, languishing includes states of experience where people describe their lives as “hollow” or “empty” (Fredrickson & Lahoda, 2005)
Not all behaviors will be equally as good at achieving these flourishing outcomes. The question then goes from trying to figure out the existential questions to figure out how to maximize flourishing.
To flourish means to grow and blossom into our full potential. Our ability to flourish is necessarily a combination of circumstances (context) and our potential. We can see this when we consider the flower metaphor. The word flower and flourishing share a common root word and that is likely no accident. There are linguistic commonalities between these two concepts in other cultures too. In Hinduism, the puja, a prayer, is often known as the “flower act.” A rose may bloom in a well-tended garden but may also be able to blossom in concrete.