By Brittany Polat
Wherever you fly, you'll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.
Except when you don't.
Because, sometimes, you won't.
I'm sorry to say so
but, sadly, it's true
can happen to you.
You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You'll be left in a Lurch.
From Oh, The Places You'll Go!, by Dr. Seuss
I have never really been a Dr. Seuss fan. As a child I hated his weird illustrations, and as an adult I couldn't care less about the Grinch or the Cat in the Hat or Seuss's iconic status as beloved children's author. I've always avoided reading his books to my kids when possible. But a while back my six-year-old asked me to read Oh, The Places You'll Go! to him at bedtime. I duly read the book to him and was astonished to find it wasn't just a pastiche of the feel-good "kid, you'll move mountains" tropes that I remembered reading as a child. Yes, there are those too, but Seuss also deals candidly with some of the setbacks and difficulties in life:
I'm afraid that some times
you'll play lonely games too.
Games you can't win
'cause you'll play against you.
Whether you like it or not,
Alone will be something
you'll be quite a lot.
And when you're alone, there's a very good chance
you'll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.
There are some, down the road between hither and yon,
that can scare you so much you won't want to go on.
Although the protagonist is smart and adventurous, sometimes things happen that bring him crashing to earth. And at those times confusion and self-doubt may set in, or darkness, indecision, fear, and loneliness. In fact, the hero confronts many internal and external afflictions: frightening enemies, physical hardship, and the directionless doldrums of waiting. But he always finds a way to overcome the difficulties:
But on you will go
though the weather be foul.
On you will go
though your enemies prowl.
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.
On and on you will hike,
And I know you'll hike far
and face up to your problems
whatever they are.
Far from being merely an ode to endless possibilities, the story is really a level-headed rumination on the complexity and challenges of life. And no wonder. Theodor Geisel (a.k.a., Dr. Seuss) published it at age 86, the year before he died---his valedictory to the world, according to a former editor. Maybe that's why Oh, The Places You'll Go! reminds me so much of the life narrative research of Dan McAdams at Northwestern University.
McAdams and fellow psychologists have spent decades investigating the way people make sense of their lives and identities through the stories they tell about themselves. The idea behind the research is simple: ask volunteers to talk about their lives, analyze their narratives for patterns, then connect the patterns to personal characteristics of the speakers. One recent paper (Reischer, Roth, Villarreal, & McAdams, 2021) is particularly interesting for those of us who enjoy probing human nature to understand what makes a good life. The researchers were looking at a construct they call self-transcendence, which has these features:
experiencing one's self as traveling backward and forward in time
a feeling of connectedness to all humanity, the earth, and the cosmos
a turn toward existential concerns such as the meaning of life and future death
Self-transcendence was first developed as a psychological construct in 2005 with the Adult Self-Transcendence Inventory (Levenson, Jennings, Aldwin, & Shiraishi, 2005). But obviously the ideas behind it have been around much longer than that—in fact, they are probably as old as humanity itself. In one study of the main concerns of European and Asian philosophies, self-transcendence was identified as the collective pinnacle of the developmental process toward wisdom (Curnow, 1999). (The steps leading up to it were self-knowledge, integration, and detachment.)
This is not surprising at all. One of our deepest needs as humans is feeling like we are a part of something larger than ourselves, whether through a culture, a tribe, a sports team, or a yearning for a higher power. We become mentally and physically sick if we feel cut off from a larger group. The anonymity and atomization that characterize modern life in the developed world surely contribute to the high rates of anomie and mental illness we see today.
Past research on self-transcendence showed that people who are highly self-transcendent have a greater purpose in life, a sense of coherence, self-esteem, positive affect, and a greater sense of well-being than people low in self-transcendence. Self-transcendence is also negatively correlated with neuroticism and depression. In other words, self-transcendence seems to contribute to a good life and perhaps to the flourishing contentment of eudaimonia.
Reischer et al. (2005) used data from a long-term community study in which adult volunteers were interviewed at length about their life stories. What they found is that people who scored high on the Adult Self-Transcendence Inventory described their lives in completely different ways than people who scored low on self-transcendence:
The "self-transcendent" story described here conveys a decidedly humanistic framing for psychological development. The emphasis in the story is on growth and actualization over time. The protagonist aims to fulfill his or her potential, to continue to learn and develop from one phase of life to the next, to be open to new possibilities and diverse perspectives, and to connect to broader humanity as a whole.
Reischer et al., p. 13-14
Highly-transcendent adults tended to see life as "an exciting and self-revealing journey," despite the setbacks, hardships, and mistakes they faced throughout their lives. Some of their characteristics include
Strong sense of personal agency
Deep interest in their individual quest and inner life
Strong connections to other people, including their family, friends, broader community groups, and even humankind as a whole
Acceptance of "the reality of personal foibles and cosmic tragedies and the humility to recognize all humans are subject to these" (p. 14)
These narrators think that people in general are "inherently good, intrinsically worthy, and capable of realizing a deep potential within" (p. 17). The least transcendent narrators, on the other hand, tended to emphasize social approval and conformity. These narrators exhibited
Strong concern for others' approval
Black-and-white views on morality
Strong sense that the good life involves reaching certain benchmarks (and regret at not reaching those benchmarks)
Lack of closure regarding past disappointments
Deep feelings of disconnectedness
Lack of transcendent experiences
For low-transcendence participants, success appeared to be external rather than internal, and they expressed a sense of failure in one or more areas of life.
Self-Transcendence and Stoic Practice
For us as Stoics, we can clearly see why the low-transcendence narrators were bummed out. They created their definition of success based on external standards imposed on them by other people, and they felt like failures if they had not achieved these standards. They saw few opportunities for growth or change, and they did not feel deeply connected to other people or groups. Their sense of self-worth was connected to material achievements rather than to internal growth as a person. When setbacks occurred and unexpected things happened--as they must in each life--these narrators just couldn't get over it. They couldn't adapt to their changed circumstances and be happy with what they had.
It might seem at first glance as if self-transcendence is not closely related to Stoic virtue, but after looking at it closely, we can see that it is actually highly relevant. By getting over your own ego and seeing yourself as part of the wider world, you achieve a more accurate view of life. When you connect your Stoic practice to self-transcendence, you can see a path for your own development over your lifespan.
I can't resist noting here that on the Adult Self-Transcendence Inventory, the data loaded on two poles: self-transcendence vs. alienation. This suggests that the psychological construct opposite transcendence is alienation. And guess what the opposite of alienation (allotriosis) was in ancient Greek? Oikeiosis, which is the Stoic concept of development over the lifespan. I think it's safe to say that one of the secrets to a flourishing life is moving away from alienation and toward familiarization.
If we want to cultivate self-transcendence in our lives, a good place to start is with the psychological techniques recommended by ancient and modern Stoics (such as the view from above or the morning and evening review). These are designed to give us distance from our impressions and help detach us from our own egos. The creators of the Adult Self-Transcendence Inventory found that meditation practice was the strongest predictor of self-transcendence in the populations they studied. So people who meditated were more likely to be highly self-transcendent. I think it's no coincidence that many of Stoic spiritual exercises are already doing some heavy lifting in this direction, because oikeiosis was the bedrock of ancient Stoic ethics.
Here are some other suggestions, based on the studies cited above, for cultivating self-transcendence in your own life.
Frame your hard mental effort in terms your long-term character growth. It can be difficult to stay motivated to do individual exercises if they feel disconnected from the bigger picture of your life. But thinking about your life as a whole story can be a great way to develop self-transcendence and stay motivated to work toward your goal. If you make mistakes, learn from them and move on. Each day is a new opportunity for growth.
Orient yourself toward internal accomplishment, not external. We see this lesson over and over again in life: externals are outside of your control and have no bearing whatsoever on your worth as a person. Fame, power, social status, wealth, career success, and other external achievements are not completely within your control. Do not let these things define who you are. At times some of these may be secondary goals (preferred indifferents), but never let your sense of worth rest on indifferents. Stay focused on virtue and being an excellent person.
Focus on the capacity for good in other people. Our 21st-century world is hyper-fragmented socially, and if you spend enough time on social media (or even traditional media) it can seem like other people belong to a different species. Don't buy into the hype. Instead, choose to take a different path by meditating on your similarities to other people rather than your differences. As part of your daily reflection, pick one person or group of people who you don't know well. List all the ways you can think of that you're similar to them. Think about their basic needs, desires, and motivations. Think about them spending time with their families or playing sports with friends. Imagine yourself smiling or shaking hands with them.
The modern psychological concept of self-transcendence was developed partly in response to the work of Viktor Frankl, whom many Stoics know for his mind-blowing book Man's Search for Meaning. (If you haven't read this book, stop what you're doing and go read it now!) Despite his horrific experience in Nazi concentration camps, Frankl was a strong believer in the natural human capacity for goodness, growth, and self-actualization. Frankl reminds us that "the more one forgets himself--by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love--the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself" (p. 50).
Several psychologists believe self-transcendence is not necessarily related to age but rather to the process of coping with stress or other difficulties. Difficulties in life can offer a tremendous opportunity for internal growth and self-transcendence. It all depends on how you frame your story. If you place value on externals and feel bitter when life gets hard, you will always stay mired in a Slump, a Lurch, or the Waiting Place. But if you see life as a journey and success as internal growth, kid, you'll move mountains! They may simply be mountains inside your own mind.
be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea,
You're off the Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So...get on your way!
Curnow, T. (1999) Wisdom, Intuition, and Ethics. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.
Dr. Seuss. Oh, The Places You'll Go! (1990). Random House: New York.
Frankl, V. (1963). Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy from Death Camp to Existentialism. Beacon Press.
Levenson, M., Jennings, P., Aldwin, C., & Shiraishi, R. (2005). Self-Transcendence:
Conceptualization and Measurement. International Journal of Aging and Human
Development, 60(2), 127-143.
Reischer, H., Roth, L., Villarreal, J., & McAdams, P. (2021). Self-Transcendence and Life Stories of Humanistic Growth in Late-Midlife Adults. Journal of Personality, 89(2), 305-324.