Day 35: How I Come Up with a Topic about Which to Write

I must admit that I didn’t expect to receive so many comments from anyone at all about this blog. In fact, since I started this blog as a little writing project only for myself, I didn’t think anyone would be reading it at all, let alone finding it worth following, or their time to spend reading it. So, when I was notified by the system that there have been more than or thousand visitors to this blog, I couldn’t really begin to express how I felt. I was happy, of course, that my writing was accessible enough for a thousand people to want to read it. I was also surprised that what I had been writing had any value at all outside of my head.

So, I’d like to thank you — yes, you, who are reading this right now — for supporting me and wanting to know what I think about what I think about things (pun, indeed, intended).

Now, I’d like to say something about how I come up with topics to write about.

A colleague of mine said to me the other day that she thought this blog was just about my dissertation writing process, and therefore it would only include things that were directly related to my dissertation, such as random data from my field research — and some boring academic stuff. When she found out that it was not a blog about my boring data as such, she got interested in reading it, which I thought was interesting for two reasons. First, she wasn’t wrong about the fact that this blog was meant to be a blog about how I write my dissertation — at least that’s my initial plan and that was how it was conceived. Had what I had in mind then be the idea about writing a blog about all kinds of things like what it has evolved to become, I would probably not even want to start writing it. I would have believed, without any doubts, that it would not be a good use of my time, since I should be placing my dissertation writing above everything, and therefore should not be so generous with my time in doing other forms of writing.

How this blog got swayed and became a blog about all kinds of things?

That’s the topic of the post today. Second, I was surprised that this colleague of mine found my blog interesting. I was surprised that she thought that someone like me would have something to offer in terms of ideas. I never thought of myself as a thinker, scholar, writer, or anything whose work is mainly about conveying great ideas through writing. The truth is having spent a lot of time with myself during the writing process — as I wrote in my very first post on why I write — I have been taking full advantage of being alone. As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer one said, loneliness is not always a bad thing:

A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.

Schopenhauer is not a particularly optimistic person, but everything he has said has some truth in it. My colleague Mike once made a remark (before he deleted it), “of all the great philosophers who ever walked the face of the earth, you choose the most miserable one to guide you!” I couldn’t agree more with Mike. One of the reason I find Schopenhauer’s ideas very appealing is because his way of thinking is rather close to that of the Buddha – in the sense that Schopenhauer is making his main metaphysical point very clear that life is really is about suffering. Life is about suffering not because he is looking at life from the perspective of the pessimist, but because he realizes how easy it is to be sad, simply because sustained happiness is not something that we, as human beings, are capable of having. Like the Buddha, Schopenhauer was surely also one of the most pessimistic human beings — but we can also think of him, and also of the Buddha, as being, simply, realistic. Therefore, they were the ones who arrived, before anyone else, at the stage of content — which is the state of not being too happy, or too sad. There’s a danger of being too happy, or too hopeful. We might be happy because we have just won something (e.g., an award, a lottery, a scholarship, etc.), but once the excitement dies down, or when we no longer possess what makes us happy, we, again, become discontent simply because of one lingering question, “why can’t this happiness last longer?” In the classic sociological study of the French scholar Emile Durkheim, one of the root causes of suicide in the late nineteenth century France was the fact that individualism failed to prepare modern citizens to deal with failure. Excessive hope was another root cause — modern society wanted us to be hopeful and everything is in our own hand because God is dead — that we can do this and this and that. But, that said, once we find out that we can’t do this and this and that as we had hoped for, waiting for us is also the excessive dreadful feeling of individual “it’s our own fault” responsibility. Modern society left us with no space to rescue ourselves from sinking to the bottom of melancholy.

One might argue that Durkheim and Schopenhauer are dead, and that there thoughts might not apply to people like us who are living in the twenty-first century. Well, there’s a point in that argument, but there are quite a number of contemporary social scientists and thinkers who are wrestling with the idea of happiness in the direction that is quite similar to that of Durkheim and Schopenhauer’s. For instance, the sociologist William Davies believes that “Happiness is all the rage” right now. In his new book (which I have not read but heard about it from one favorite Podcast program Philosophy Bites) The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Wellbeing, he argues that “real happiness may be getting left on the side of the road choking on clouds of neuro-marketing and touchy-feely excess in the pursuit of happiness.” In other words, we today are too careless about how we use the term happiness, therefore making it overrated. When asking most people what it means to them, the answers are either something rather simplistically materialistic (like having a nice car, or a new iPhone) or physical (such as having sex), or something rather abstract – too abstract to the point that even the people who talk about it themselves have no idea what they are talking about. That’s exactly the point that makes Schopenhauer’s words resonate with me deeply: I don’t believe that life is about seeking happiness. I believe that life is about seeking the point (or place) where you feel content with, and there are different ways of getting there.

The “three key points” which I think would help us to realize this fact and arrive at the point where you feel content about you life, which, according to me, are: first, to realize that we already have everything we need right now to be happy; hence, longing for more (especially material objects) will make you feel unhappy. That said, an exception can be made about longing for more non-material productive sentiments, which, according to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, could actually be good for you and make you a better person. Second, it is also very crucial to realize that, if you don’t care about what other people are saying or thinking about you, what they are saying or thinking about you cannot affect you in any way, so, don’t give a f*** too much about what other people think about you is one way to go. An exception, of course, is that we should also constantly evaluate and re-evaluate ourselves. Some of what other people are thinking and saying about you, though might not sound very nice, might help you to become a better person. All wise women and men value the quality of positive, and constructive criticism. Would you rather be an unwise woman or man? 

Finally, the feeling of wanting to possess, and hold on to things is the primary source of discontent. Think about it, what can we really owe? Our body? We’ll have to let it go at some point. Our friend? Well, saying a wrong word one time could also destroy it? Material objects? Come on; gimme a break. You get the point. One could achieve these three key points by becoming a monk, or being an outcast; but one could also achieve them by constantly reminding oneself that they are critical to the state of sustained contentment.
Many readers have shared with me that the reason they find my blog interesting to read is because they can expect all kinds of discussion from it. The whole discussion on Schopenhauer and Durkheim above is a pretext to the part about why I think loneliness is helpful. Yes, I am a master of tangent. Yes, loneliness is helpful, because it gives you the sense of sustained contentment, because when you are alone you do not except other people to be responsible for your contentment. You, therefore, take full responsibility for who you are and what you do. As for myself, when I am alone I often read books, watch television, go biking, and so on. These are activities that make me feel content with myself. For Schopenhauer, the worst form of happiness is sex, as the writers of David L. Norton, Mary F. Kille describes in their book The Philosophy of Love:

Orgasm is known as the “little death”…Orgasm ends sexual desire, which in turns end the illusion of love.

Schopenhauer writes about how we fall in love in order to have an excuse to have sex. The ultimate sexual pleasure of sex is orgasm. But once we have reached that point, Schopenhauer observes, “we could hear the devil’s laughter in the rather scary lonely moment just after orgasm.” Schopenhauer feels deeply sorry for us not only because “we are all just like animals” in one sense, but also because most of time just to reach that short moment of “happiness” we lie, deceive, trick, beguile, or even physically hurt other person. How pathetic are we? Schopenhauer wonders, and I agree with him. For that matter, by being alone I also keep myself away from sex. This post, again, was supposed to be strictly about how I come up with topics to write about, and for some reason the past few paragraphs have been about something else completely! In short, loneliness is good for intellectual incubation. It keeps you away from wanting to long for the unnecessary; it also keeps you away from wanting to hurt other people. But what it says, also, is the fact that I have been learning about so many things that I would otherwise may not even notice while being alone writing my dissertation. For instance, my feeling about the kind of love that I would like for myself? I had never had the brain energy to think about it, until I had to write a chapter in my dissertation about the meaning of romantic love in urban Shanghai that I began to think about myself in relation to the informants whom I had spent time observing and interviewing. So, when I discovered that what I had been writing did have something to offer, I was extremely delighted. It was a feeling of surprise, mixed together with honor, pleasure, and warm satisfaction. I have a feeling that you understand what I mean.

So, how did I come up with various topics to talk about in this blog?

So far, we have a few posts on love, a couple of the debate over which of the dominating forces between emotion and reason govern us rationale beings, a couple posts on existentialism, quite a few (here and there) on Freud and Rousseau, also quite a few on Stoicism, a couple of writings on traditionalism and modernity, and most recently, an essay on a film and how I think about what I “perceive” in my dreams (as opposed to “see” since my eyes are closed). Everyone of these posts represents what I really think. There’s no one telling me what to write, and no moral reasoning or divine power to censor me from expressing my true thoughts (except my ability to write, perhaps, since English is not my first language). In other words, I open myself up as though I am (literally in this sense) open book — an open blog. I always live this way anyway in my waking life, so it’s not a really big deal for me actually to write about some of these mentioned unconventional (and at times controversial) issues.

Often, someone would ask me a question about he or she is curious. Being me, I would put forward my initial thought on the subject (as I also appreciate my own intuitiveness) and then, also being me, I would retract, back off, a bit, once my passionate intuition has done its job, to really start thinking rationally about what I just put forward. That’s when I sit down and write my blog. So, for instance, when a friend asked me about love — “what is love?” — I immediately answered “it is a feeling, and therefore it is not something external, or materialistic to us.” Unlike “things,” “objects,” “facts,” “rules and norms,” love is internal to us because you simply can’t point to it and say “there it is — love.” It is inside of you, and because of that not all of us understand love in the same way. Some might think of it — feel it — as the essential pretext of sex (so that they can deceive themselves to believe that the painful, smelly, and unhygienic intercourse that they engage is not so meaningless). Some might think of love as the part of a whole traditional norm, or a precondition of marriage. Some may think of it as a biological chemistry that makes you want to go extra miles in convincing yourself that your life has a meaning after all. Some — especially the stupidest of all — may even think that love is materialistic — “you can feel it when someone is buying you a new iPhone,” for instance. These were things that I later on discussed in my own head, with sometimes helps from Internet research and conversation with friends (in which case, I’d credit their contributions of they would let me). As I mentioned before, even those who are not my friends can also be my teachers because I can also learn from them how not to be so mindless, or, simply stupid.

So, in short, in writing a response to questions that make me feel as though I want to dig deeper, I get to explore my own intuition, and do more research into reasons in relation to my own sensibility. This, that’s how I come up with the topics.

P.S. I just want to add a few more thoughts here. As a lifelong Buddhist and someone who found Schopenhauer’s ideas resonate deeply with me, I am not a particularly pessimistic folk to be around (am I?). I have actually heard the opposite. For me, I think their ideas are not meant to be thought of as social, but virtue ethics centered around the development of an individual. I believe in their ideas because they make me want to get up in the morning, give my all to my work, and get back home at night to recharge so that another day to give it all to what I love could conveniently arrive. It gives me the meaning of living in the present. 

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2 thoughts on “Day 35: How I Come Up with a Topic about Which to Write

  1. Pingback: Day 43: On Loneliness | 100 days of writing

  2. Pingback: Day 62: Paradise; or, Reflecting on the Urban | 100 days of writing

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