“What is a good life?” is a question few people ever seriously take the time to answer. My father never had a chance to ask it, one step ahead of countless demons every step of his life. He spoke, every so often, about his demons, and how they drove him, without ever naming one. He was unable to answer the question of a good life for himself, or leave me much of a clue, except by the example of his suffering. It is a shame, although I have come to understand the reasons he was unable to ask the question. I ask it now for both of us: what is a good life?
One element, certainly, is being true to yourself. Finding this true self, and serving it faithfully, is the object of long study. Honestly addressing the feelings which must guide the inquiry is essential. Some consider such “study” frivolous, the luxurious navel gazing of idle philosophers. For me, addressing the question is vital to a good life.
How is one true to oneself?
I always think of Hillel’s famous answer first. It is an answer I’ve tried to live by almost from the time I first heard it, when I was a boy. Hillel was the legendary Jewish sage who lived around the time of Jesus. Illiterate and poor until he was forty, he was uniquely qualified, among scholars, to relate to the mass of humanity. He was renowned for his patience and kindness, and his practicality.
A Roman, according to legend, asked Hillel to teach him the Torah while the Roman stood on one foot. Hillel’s famously strict colleague, Shammai, had already angrily told this Roman, in answer to the same question, to fuck off. Hillel thought for a moment and said “what is hateful to you, do not do to another person. That is the essence of the Torah, the rest is commentary, go study it.”
I, like the Roman in the story, admired the concise genius of this answer. Don’t be a sadistic hypocrite. “Love your enemy,” as Jesus was supposed to have said, seems as ridiculous to me as the miracle myth of Jesus’s mother being a virgin impregnated by God. What is hateful to you — few things could be more clear and direct.
I know, as do you, exactly what is hateful to us. If you hate it, don’t do it to other people. That is a large part of being true to yourself. You would like to live in a world where this was a universal principle, so, as the Nike ad says: just do it.
Loving your enemies is fine for saints, but for the rest of us, not doing what we hate being done to us is probably the best we can do. If everyone did it, how much sweeter life would be for everyone. How can that not be part of the answer to “what is a good life?”
Do not tolerate abuse, from others, from yourself. When you see it practiced by others, and you have the power to intervene to stop it, stop abuse. When you realize you’re being unfair to yourself, let up. If someone else did that to you, you’d find it hateful, so don’t do it to yourself.
Now that’s easy for a man living on other people’s coins to say, you will say, abuse is, in many situations, in most situations, perhaps, the law of the land. It is simply another word for robust human competition, call it “abuse” if you like. But abuse is hateful, and much different from the good sportsmanship we applaud in fair competition. We know it when we feel abused, and, you will agree, if abuse is the law of the land, it’s a law everyone living under it would like to change.
What is a good life? To me, a boy who grew up in a home where rage was expressed regularly, it’s a life with as little anger and conflict as possible. The serenity prayer is one thing, but learning to avoid conflict is indispensable.
You can often avoid conflict in the short term by a compromise that leaves you unsatisfied, feeling you’ve got the sucker’s end of the deal. You will avoid the immediate fight but it is not a workable long-term strategy. Sooner or later, the unfairness of it will overboil.
Most of us are angry about something. There are countless reasons for it in a world run largely by the most unprincipled. Most often anger comes from the feeling that we are being forced to eat shit. It is natural to feel angry when you have a mouthful of something disgusting. My father, no matter how materially successful he became, no matter how comfortably middle class his life grew, always had a mouthful of something disgusting. This left him snarling at those he had the power to snarl at without consequences.
A life of snarling is not, of course, without consequences. My father was unable to forgive anything. He could not forgive others for doing hateful things, he could not forgive himself. He died deeply regretting this attitude he admitted was seared into his soul by the time he was two. He died lamenting his lack of insight and the courage to try to change himself, for his own sake and for the sake of those he loved.
Forgiveness is hard sometimes, but there is no substitute for it in a good life. When someone apologizes sincerely, forgiveness is usually not hard. Apologizing sincerely, and without conditions, is the right thing to do as soon as you know you’ve hurt someone. But a sincere apology is sadly rare.
Are we obliged to forgive people who tell us it is our own problem that we are easily wounded pussies? Fuck that. No reason to get the last word, though. Those types, once they prove themselves incapable of not being that way, are best left in the wake of your boat. Seriously. Fuck them. Your life and serenity is enriched by each such sullen, defensive vampire you lose.
The loved ones we cherish are the ones we can be our true selves around. No acting is required, no false politeness demanded. We treat them well because they treat us well and our small kindnesses invite reciprocation. It’s the opposite of a vicious cycle. It’s a fairly simple arrangement, and a precious one, because it is not easy to find these kindred souls in the world.
Love, now that I think of it, is at the center of a good life.
Doing what you love, although a luxury many people can not afford in our competitive, materialistic society, is a beautiful thing. I have a friend who does work she truly loves, and she is a better person for it. There are frustrations in her working life, but the work itself helps people, sometimes even saves a life, and is something she does well and loves to do. Talk about a blessing.
If you are fortunate to have things you love to do, do them whenever you can. It is a blessing to make yourself happy.
Counting your blessings is also a blessing, but I have to say, in all honesty, fuck that.