As a misfit half-Mexican teen growing up in southeast Los Angeles, Yvette Doss had a lot of questions. To find answers, she turned to the work of great philosophers -- and came to believe that we are all qualified to ponder life's mysteries.
I believe that you can take control of your destiny through the power of philosophy.
The turning point for me was the day I learned that the questions I had about religion, morals, inequality, and injustice in the world were not only acceptable questions, but questions to be encouraged. Great minds — like Plato and Descartes — had spent countless hours pondering life’s mysteries throughout the ages. I realized that my mind, the mind of a misfit half-Mexican teenage girl living in an immigrant neighborhood in L.A., could ponder those mysteries, too. The fact that my best friend dropped out of school at age 16 to have a baby, or that few of my neighbors had college educations, did not exclude me from the conversation of the ages. I believe the act of philosophical thinking is not the exclusive domain of the privileged, the moneyed, the old, or the accomplished.
I lived in a household run by a single mother, and I moved around from neighborhood to neighborhood, from new school to new school. There were gangs, crime, and sub-standard schools to contend with in my pocket of southeast Los Angeles. I struggled with finding my place in a world that, though imperfect, was the closest thing I had to home. But I had big questions on my mind, too.
Did my challenging circumstances mean that I should only think about the difficulty of day-to-day existence? Why couldn’t I wonder about the larger questions in life like, “Why are we here? Does it have to be this way? What if there isn’t a God?” And most importantly: “Was I destined to accept my lot in life just because I was born with fewer advantages than those luckier than I?”
The crisp pages of the books I cracked open each night and read until I fell asleep with a flashlight tucked under my arm told me otherwise.
“The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said.
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” said Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Simone de Beauvoir shared: “I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for the truth; and the truth rewarded me.”
Descartes and Hume validated my questioning of dogmatic religious belief. I was connected to the larger world of ideas through the simple act of opening those books.
Thanks to philosophers, my new friends, I considered my thoughts worth expressing and later, when I tried my hand at writing, I experienced the joy of seeing my thoughts fill a page.
I believe the wisdom of the ages helped me see beyond my station in life, helped me imagine a world in which I mattered. Philosophy gave me permission to use my mind, and the inspiration to aim high in my goals for myself. Philosophy allowed me to dare to imagine a world in which man can reason his way to justice, women can choose their life’s course, and the poor can lift themselves out of the gutter.
Philosophy taught me that logic makes equals of us all.
Yvette Doss does fundraising for Indiana University Northwest in Gary, Ind. A native of Los Angeles, she was founding editor of an alternative paper and a Latino zine. Doss has written for the Los Angeles Times, Ms. Magazine and NPR.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.
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