For some strange reason, whilst I was in the shower the other day, I started wondering what my current answer to the question ‘what is a good life?’ would be. I imagined having only a minute on prime-time TV to trying to explain it, so I sat down over two separate occasions and tried to write the script I would use.
What I came up with is published below.
I challenge you to try the same task. Your philosophy of life might be very different from mine. It might be a lot shorter (‘have fun’) or focused on a different purpose altogether (‘find god’). My intention is not for you to believe or adopt my version, but to take the time to articulate your own. It is a chance to stop and consider lessons learned from the past as well as set the direction for the future.
I suspect that our personal philosophies of life change over the course of our lives. I am quite certain that I couldn’t have written this 5 years ago, and I look forward to seeing what I will write in another 5 or 10 years time. In the meantime, please feel free to use my ponderings as a starting point for your own.
You were born into a body and mind and family and community and culture and country and planet and galaxy and universe where most things are out of your control. Many of the things that define you now were not of your choosing. Many of the things that will define you in the future will also be out of your control. So start by giving ‘you’ a break. Yes you have the power to shape your life, but you are not a god. You can’t possibly wrap your head around the complexity of forces acting on you at any given point in time and accepting this can help you ease expectations of what you should be able to control.
With the small but meaningful amount of control that you can wield via the choices and decisions you make, aim to make gradual and incremental improvements to yourself and your life. This will help buffer against the natural decay and suffering that is built into the ‘system’. Don’t get too wrapped up in wondering what the precise outcome is you are working towards. Just try to minimise suffering and maximise wellbeing. Making such improvements will require you to keep learning, try new things and push yourself out of your comfort zone on a regular basis. There are opportunities to do this every day, week, month and year. The changes don’t need to be big, in fact, start small and increase only in increments that you can manage. Make sure to to rest from time to time, as making improvements in your life will consume energy.
If you have energy remaining or the strong desire to do so, try to make some changes that benefit others; your friends, family, colleagues, community. In the same way that you try to make yourself incrementally better, try to make the lives of the people around you incrementally better as well. Your positive inputs into the lives of others will trigger reciprocation and form the basis of the close relationships that will accompany you over the course of your life and buffer you against inevitable uncertainties and hardships.
These are your jobs. Trying to make yourself, your life, and the lives around you a little bit better over time.
As you do this, keep a few things in mind.
- All the things you love and enjoy will end at some point. You will have to let go of as many things as you embrace in life. Try as best as you can to treasure those things or people whilst they are in your life, knowing you will lose them at some point. When losing something important to you happens, you’ll be distressed. You’ll do everything you can to hold onto it longer or live in denial that it has happened. That is normal and OK. Grief will give way to acceptance. Wishing it had never happened (cause it caused you pain) will give way to being thankful it was part of your life.
- Accept that others are in the same boat as you, trying to use what little control they have to build a good life for themselves and the people they love. We will invariably hurt each other in the process. Most times it will be unintentional. Sometimes it will be malevolent. Where possible choose forgiveness over revenge, compassion over hate. But don’t beat yourself up for feeling angry at others at times. Don’t linger too long in the presence of those that hurt you or hold you back, or toil endlessly to try and change the trajectory of those that don’t wish to change. If possible, depart such situations without anger or revenge, but compassion and understanding. If that is too big an ask, just make sure to do the departing part.
- Improving ourselves is hard, so we will often focus our attention on hoping that others change instead. We’ll place our ongoing happiness in the hands of others, as they will likewise do with us. It is all of us being gloriously human, trying to elegantly shirk responsibility. Asking others to change is OK, but expecting it or demanding it is futile. Focus your efforts instead on what you can change in yourself.
- You will spend the entire journey of your life with your mind. Your mind is the unique collection of thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, expectations and beliefs known only to you. Your mind is the product of your brain, that remarkable but flawed grey lump in your head. Its job is to make sense of the world and give you some guidance. Often your mind will work in your favour. But many times it will not. It may tell you that you aren’t worthy or capable or of any value. It will construct stories about who you are and how the world works that are sometimes blatantly false, or at least very unhelpful. Treat your mind like a slightly unhinged tour guide whose advice is often good, but sometimes terrible and not in your best interests. This means questioning your beliefs on a regular basis.
If you are lucky, as you make these small improvements or changes to yourself and your life and the lives of those around you, you will find activities that strongly resonate with you. This is a good thing as it will help you form answers to two difficult question that many of us get stuck on: Who am I? and What the hell am I supposed to do with my life?
If you can, focus in on those activities, as their increased presence in your life will help sustain a sense of personal identity and give you meaning and purpose. We may never know our ‘true selves’ or the precise meaning of life, but we may be able to form a reasonably coherent sense of who we are and decide on the meaning of our individual lives, and honestly that is a pretty fucking big achievement in itself.
In the ultimate display of impermanence, death will come to meet us all, and you have no idea when it will come to meet you. It may not be possible to meet death saying ‘yep, I managed to get everything done I wanted to’, but it is possible to meet death saying ‘hey, you caught me right in the middle of trying to live my best life’.