Some people find themselves too busy to deal with philosophy, while others engage with philosophy like scientists observing specimens under a microscope. As a “lover of wisdom” I see philosophy as our bridge to spirituality—to make sense of a world that doesn’t make sense and to heal the pain of being lost in-between misinterpreted identities and empathy overload.  Throughout history, many great philosophers have given us profound insights about how to live wisely, but we still come into the world to learn, distill, and embody our own truth. We are always our own philosopher whether we admit it or not. 

Lost between the labels of identity

I find social identity labels troublesome. I would lose myself trying to fit into them by either becoming an imposter who abandons my true self in order to belong somewhere in other people’s eyes or risk the chance of being seen at all. These labels don’t usually explain who I really am, and yet they give people, or worse, myself, the impression of who I should be. I’m then left with conflicting statements of identity, such as:

  • I consider myself Chinese Canadian, but I was neither born in China nor in Canada.
  • I like creating art, but I only draw or paint on average once a year.
  • I have a PhD in environmental studies, but I am not an environmentalist.
  • I write about nature, but my experiences in nature per conventional discourse has been limited. For example, I’ve only gone camping three times in my life, the first time when I was already 18 years old.
  • My background and training is in landscape architecture, but I am more concerned about shifting human psychology than creating physical landscapes. Moreover, I’ve never even owned a garden. But maybe balcony container plants count?
  • I once held an arborist license, but I was certainly not a tree-hugger. I’ve probably been involved in the removal of just as many trees as were those planted in my career as a landscape architect.
  • I consider myself a scholar in environmental ethics, but I don’t subscribe to many popular “environmentally-friendly” life-style choices. For example, I’m not vegan and I shop with big-box retailers. To be honest, I’m not even concerned with climate change. Yes, I just admitted to an environmental blasphemy! The truth is, I see climate change, as like mass violence, social-political upheavals, and the global housing crisis, as symptoms of something much deeper about humanity’s relationship with the world—a collective spiritual issue rather than an ecological emergency or predicament.
  • And therefore, I advocate for social change, but I don’t want to be considered an activist.

At the end of the day, I’m just ME—no more and no less.

But in our social world, we need some labels to get around. So, not surprisingly, I had trouble finding a (job) title for myself after I completed my PhD. I was no longer a student at a university; I was no longer a researcher, nor an educator affiliated with an institution; and I was no longer interested in carry around the landscape architect title if it only meant I was paying fees to a professional association.

letter stamps organized in wooden shelf compartments
Photo by Natalia Yakovleva on Unsplash

Reclaiming the philosopher in me

If anything, I would consider myself an environmental philosopher. But there’s something weird about calling yourself a philosopher; unless you look like Dumbledore in Harry Potter; or you are the reincarnation of Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, etc.; or at the very least, you teach philosophy at a university. But going by this stereotype, we’d be either leaving out an entire gender or even most of the population eligible to be philosophers. So even though no legal or ethical restrictions surround the philosopher title, and despite the fact that I do have a Doctor of Philosophy and a “love for wisdom,” I would still feel awkward using the philosopher title in professional settings.

boy smelling flowers in a garden
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I believe this awkwardness comes from the way our society engages with philosophy. Outside of academia, that is, in everyday situations and non-academic job settings, the impression I’ve gathered is that most people see philosophy as superfluous—a luxury that brings nothing of value other than intellectual entertainment.

The quintessential incident in my life that represented this notion was when a friend (who was also a landscape architect) invited me to meet some of her new friends for lunch at a hot-pot restaurant. After the lunch, my friend and I chatted about the gathering. I mentioned to her that I was disappointed that the group didn’t have the chance to talk philosophy, which in my mind meant to really get to know each other. Amidst the busy-ness of eating hot-pot, people talked about the happenings of their lives, but did not talk about life itself. My friend remarked, “Van Thi! People have lives. They’re busy!” Ok…a valid reason, I guess. But of course, that is also the reason why many people have no time to “stop and smell the roses.”

Now on the other hand, among my PhD peers in the liberal arts were people who would dissect a philosopher’s text like specimens under a microscope. Conversations based on arguments and counterarguments of philosophical ideas or attempts to prove the correct perspective of a philosopher’s intent were things I witnessed, and participated in, to some extent. But often, I would wonder, what is the point o f this? Is this kind of philosophy just an intellectual sport? Or is this rational examination of what one Great Philosopher has said supposedly going to reveal a universal truth about the world so that we can bring in world peace, social justice, or loving communities?  

Certainly, in the writings of many Great Philosophers is great advice about creating personal peace and happiness. But to believe that anyone other than myself would think that philosophy could have the answers to our world’s “problems” was my own oversimplification about what life-changing philosophy demands of us. We come into the world to learn, to distill, and to embody our own truth, so we are always our own philosopher. But of course, I have favourite philosophers too, of whom you will meet in my writings. I call upon them when I need extra support in communicating a complicated idea. To them, I am grateful, because they already read my mind (decades or hundreds of years) before I even understood what I was searching to discover within myself.

A personal philosophy to make sense of the world and heal

As a communication tool, philosophy relies on logic and rationality, but as a personal exercise, my motive to be philosophical is emotional. As my own environmental philosopher, I know that human beings have an intrinsic connection to nature because we are also nature. We want to belong on this planet, and we want to make home of our lives on this planet. And yet, collectively, we are so far off from this perfect harmony of “home-sweet-home.” I turn to philosophy so that I can find reasons to why we are the way we are. I need these reasons because I feel the pain when I see humans harming other humans, let alone when we do not care for our home.

I turn to spirituality because I feel the pain when I know the reasons why we are the way we are as human beings and watch the train wreck happen regardless. Despite my eagerness to share what I know so that we can change, I encounter what I perceive as resistance from those who are oblivious to these reasons and are reluctant to reflect on them. Then I need further reasons to know why this resistance is also the way we are.

The final conclusions of my inquiry: that is the way we are.

There are people here on Earth to maintain existing conditions. There are people here on Earth to make life a challenge for others. There are people here on Earth who find existing conditions and challenging people or circumstances hard to bear and choose to act towards some change. And lastly, there are people here on Earth who are meant to find out that real change happens internally first.

Your personal philosophy will tell you which one of these you are.

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