Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A book worth reading amid life's many, many distractions

Originally printed Nov. 28, 2011.

In his new book, "Becoming Real: Authenticity in an Age of Distractions," Iowa City author Robert Sessions distills a career's worth of insight from his 26 years teaching philosophy at Kirkwood Community College.

Halfway through the book, the professor poses the very question his students must have asked him most often: "But why ... should we make the effort to listen to philosophers? They tend to write in technical and often opaque jargon and style, and their ideas seem far away from the kinds of realities we discussed."

Sessions' answer to that question is the polished retort he must have provided hundreds of times. But it also offers fresh insight into the questions about "freedom," "authenticity" and "autonomy" he has been struggling with since his dissertation days.

"Here is where you need to trust me a bit," Sessions writes. "I believe that without going through some philosophical rigors we will not find a satisfactory understanding of that which we seek — answers to how to lead an authentic life in a world swirling with confusing and alluring distractions that take us from ourselves instead of helping us find and be who we are."

Sessions, in fact, is striving to be the type of philosopher described by Henry David Thoreau: "To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts nor even to found a school but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically but practically."

"Becoming Real" does include Sessions' treks alongside the philosophers one might expect to see in a book about authenticity — Søren Kierkegaard, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Satre, Martin Heidegger, Martha Nussbaum and the most upliftingly optimistic reading of Friedrich Nietzsche you're likely to find anywhere. But the book also sojourns and saunters with Thoreau ("Walden"), Kathleen Norris ("Dakota" and "Acedia and Me"), Phil Cousineau ("Once and Future Myths" and "The Art of Pilgrimage"), Jane Kenyon ("Happiness") and other spiritually-attuned, poetically-aware, cultural critics.

Most refreshingly, Sessions also draws upon the subtle inspirations from his own life: his experiences as an early home-schooling advocate, his "devastating" divorce, the thrill he and his Kirkwood students have watching leatherback turtles during an annual trip to Costa Rica.

Sessions is careful to identify the dead ends and blind alleyways into which the search for authenticity can lead people — from religious/political fundamentalism, to the eternal adolescence of "Guyland," to the purposelessness of "Leisureville," to the helplessness brought about by many self-help approaches. But he unironically and unabashedly offers "Becoming Real" as a means of calling people to begin "a pilgrimage to a more authentic self."

To hear Sessions offer his call in person, come listen to him read from "Becoming Real" at 7 p.m. Tuesday in Prairie Lights Books.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

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