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A Philosopher’s Ancient Approach to Vulnerability

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A Philosopher’s Ancient Approach to Vulnerability


  • How the Daoists, Buddhists, Stoics, and Epicureans may have led us astray
  • What resilience looks like in our modern lives
  • Why it’s good to be vulnerable to suffering

Todd May is the Class of 1941 Memorial Professor of philosophy at Clemson University and author of the recent book A Fragile Life: Accepting Our Vulnerability. In it, May lays out a new way of thinking about how we exist in the world, one that reassures us that our suffering, rather than a failure of physical or psychological resilience, is a powerful and essential part of life itself. He sat down with fellow professor, journalist, organizer and artist Chenjerai Kumanyika to talk about and wrestle with the tough questions of morality, suffering, and the value in thinking about it at all.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view Todd and Chenjerai’s full conversation, click the video below.

Todd: When I was in high school, I had a Daoist mentor, [with] the view that you can get beyond suffering and accept the world. I was attracted to that, [but] always had a hesitation. It seemed to me there was something off about the idea that we would make ourselves invulnerable to suffering, but I didn’t know what it was.

That’s where the book comes from. I want to take up the truths that the Daoists, Buddhists, Stoics, and, to some extent, the Epicureans offer us, but not in the form that they offer them, that you get beyond suffering. That leads to the question, “If we’re not going to get beyond suffering, how do we deal with the fact that we suffer?”

Chenjerai: When I was college aged, I became attracted to Daoism [too], and read deeply, started [with] Laozi. It offered me a release from living in a sense of everyday inner tension. Oftentimes I felt like I was walking through life balled up like a fist. I hadn’t figured out who I was yet. When I got to the section on invulnerabilism, I was really pleased because you’ve offered a very respectful summary of some key ideas [from] four different traditions.

Todd: These traditions are really important to me. The way they are framed in their “official form” always left me with a sense of, “There’s got to be something here that they’re missing.”

Chenjerai: Isn’t that one of the big tensions? Is it actually the official form, or is it the way that people practice these traditions that you have worries about?

Todd: I actually have less beef with the way people practice than with the official traditions themselves. The core of Buddhist doctrine is that suffering comes from craving or desire, and you can overcome suffering by overcoming craving and desire. There are analogous things in these other traditions, and that’s [what I mean] when I say the traditions in their official form are offering something. It’s not that nobody can do it. I suspect there are people who can be straight out Buddhist or Daoist or Stoics, but I think for most of us, it’s just not what we’d want.

For instance, when the Malaysian flight went down families were gathering in the airport. They were gathering in these waiting rooms trying to get word of what was going on with their relatives, their loved ones. Suppose somebody had walked into the room at that moment and said, “I know you’re all suffering, but I have something that will relieve the suffering. I can make that suffering go away.” Let’s suppose even people believed it was true. How many people would raise their hand and say, “Yeah, I’m in.”

Chenjerai: One of the other things that’s interesting is [that] in addition to talking about invulnerabilism, you talk about what makes us vulnerable. That life has this tendency to interfere with what you call our projects and our practices. Could you help us get a sense of what those are?

Todd: One is the project of raising my kids. I’m worried about what’s going to happen to my kids—the possibility of their having difficulties, of their being rejected by people, of their not being able to find a job. [Another] is our political projects together. We’re trying to create a more just environment in the world [and] there’s lots that can go wrong in that, lots of places in which we can fail or we can do something that we think might be helpful, but maybe it turns out not to be helpful.

At the outset of the book, I argue that most of what’s meaningful for us involves projects [and] commitments to things unfolding over time. If you’re committed to something over time, that means that at any point, something can happen to make you suffer [over] something that’s meaningful to you.

“To care about something means that you’re vulnerable to suffering.”

Chenjerai: These projects are also primary sources of meaning. You’re wrestling with something that is really complicated, [the] question, “Do we have the right to want to be free from suffering?” There are some really interesting cases that you give us in which there’s maybe some moral or ethical problem with just wanting to be free of suffering too quickly.

Todd: One of the cases that I discuss is the German officer, von Stauffenberg, who tried to assassinate Hitler and failed and was later murdered himself. Picture this guy. He’s gone through this project. The assassination doesn’t work, and he’s sitting in his jail cell. It would be weird to think that what’s going through this guy’s mind is, “Well, that didn’t work out,” but [to have] no suffering associated with it.

That was a deeply meaningful project, and it would be weird for him not to suffer, but let’s suppose that’s where he was at. I have no complaint. He doesn’t have an obligation to suffer. It’s rather that most of us would think it was strange [not to suffer, if it were us].

It’s not that we want to suffer. It’s that we want to be the kinds of people that can suffer under certain circumstances—not because it’s morally better, but because that’s one of the implications of caring about something. To care about something means that you’re vulnerable to suffering.

Chenjerai: Is it possible to have a deeply meaningful relationship, to deeply care about somebody, and then this person dies or something doesn’t go well for them, and you’re not moved?

Todd: The Stoics always admired an ancient general. The general had a son who was in the army, and [when] the son died, the general was told, “Look, your son has died.” His response, admired by the Stoics, is, “I always knew my son was mortal.”

Now, my problem is I can’t inhabit that [mindset]. It seems so foreign, although I don’t want to say that there aren’t people who can inhabit that space, and I don’t want to say there’s anything wrong with that space. What I’m really after is a project of understanding ourselves. The full understanding of how most of us want to relate to our suffering is encaptured by these doctrines, but if it’s not captured by these doctrines, how do we think about it? How ought we to think about it?

Chenjerai: In thinking about how this is in conversation with philosophy, who [philosophically] do you think you’ve had the most tension with?

Todd: I used to write in a more technical fashion because philosophers are brought up to write to other philosophers. What I’ve been trying to do in these last several books is to present ideas that may themselves be a little bit difficult to wrestle with, but in a way that people read and [understand]. I wasn’t trying to wrestle down a particular author. I was trying to bring in people as they might be helpful.

A Philosopher’s Ancient Approach to Vulnerability

There’s a chapter where the philosopher R. Jay Wallace says, “We have to affirm things that we know we shouldn’t affirm because that’s how life is.” For your life to be meaningful for you, you’ve got to affirm things. For instance, we’re professors here at Clemson. You’re moving on to Rutgers. We know here at Clemson that one of the reasons we enjoy the kinds of salaries and perks we do today is because this university was built on the back of slave labor, built on the backs of people who were wrongfully convicted, that it’s maintained by people who receive terrible exploitative salaries. Yet we find the meaning of what we do, often on the backs of these people, and Wallace says that we have to affirm that that’s a good thing.

There are certain costs to this notion of acceptance, which I try to lay out in the book, but we don’t have to affirm it. We can accept that it happened and even in our better moments say to ourselves, “Better I was not born than this happened.” If we can say that to ourselves, then we get beyond this idea that we’ve got to affirm the past, but that we just accept it, and we accept that our lives have a certain tragic character. This is part of what it is, to accept the life and its own source of some form of suffering if we’re reflecting on it.

Chenjerai: This makes me want to go two directions at the same time, but I’m going to go the first direction, talking about the tragic character of life. You raise the issue of being willing, when necessary, to arrive at the conclusion and say, “Maybe for me to be here, slavery had to happen. Maybe it would be better that I wasn’t here.” Have you talked about these ideas with your family at all?

Todd: Do I have to affirm this horrific history because I’m affirming my kids? The conclusion I come to is that’s not for me to decide. That’s for my kids to decide. I can only decide in my own case. My kids have to think about their own lives, their relationship to the past that brought us all here. What you’re on to here is this really complicated and difficult question. It’s emotionally difficult to think about. What I try to do is confront these things in the book in such a way as to arrive to at least to some tentative answers that people can look at and consider for themselves.

I don’t know if I subscribe to the idea that some moments are less important than others—I think they’re all very important—but [right now] a lot of people are looking for a political way forward. We’re in a moment where a lot of people are suffering and think that they’re going to be suffering because of our particular political arrangement in the United States. Does this book offer us anything in those conversations?

“We have to recognize that we suffer, and we have to be able to deal with our suffering, but we don’t have to overcome it.”

Todd: I think it offers something direct and something indirect. The direct thing it offers is it’s going to bring us to an understanding of suffering that’s around us. The issue around our dealing with the history that we come from is, I think, an indirect way in which we can start to think about this.

For instance, let’s suppose that I say to myself, “I’d be willing to give my life or my having existed to have prevented the Holocaust.” That’s a lot. That’s a lot to give, but then why would I not be willing to give a little bit more than I’m giving now to prevent the suffering that’s around me? It seems that I’ve got to confront my own identity by asking myself, “What would I have been willing to do for the past?” and leading that to ask, “Okay, what am I willing to do now?” We have Syrian refugees trying to get to our shores. We have massive hunger. We have a president who is deporting the most vulnerable people and using that for his own self-enhancement. What are you willing to do about that? If you’re not willing to do something about that, what does that say about the things that you would have done at another time?

Chenjerai: On that, when I think of Todd May and I think of political action, one of the first things I think of is nonviolent organizing. From what I understand, nonviolent, direct action would say, “No, that person could be in there saying all kinds of objectionable things, even scary things, and we don’t get to punch him.” In fact, you have to somehow inhabit a state that allows you to endure those things. Does that have anything to do with invulnerabilism?

Todd: On the one hand, as a tactical matter, it seems to me that [violence] is unhelpful because it allows these people who are oppressors to play the role of victim. It’s almost never helpful. The question that you’re driving at is, though, do we have to somehow overcome our own suffering at having to deal with this in a nonviolent way?

I think the answer is no. We have to confront our suffering. We have to recognize that we suffer, and we have to be able to deal with our suffering, but we don’t have to overcome it. To engage in nonviolence isn’t to be a saint, but it’s to be a person who reflects on what might be helpful, on how to treat people with human dignity, even people that you may not respect, and to be able to confront that, but not necessarily to put ourselves in a position where suffering won’t touch us.

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