Once we have acquired the basic necessities of life, we start thinking beyond issues of survival, and begin to face the prospect of eternity.
For years, we work hard to earn a steady income that pays for our cost of living; we save money to have a house of our own; and we constantly keep on preparing for our needs in the future. We strive to set aside a nest egg that grows and protects itself from economic downturns. If emergencies happen, as they sometimes do, we ensure that we have enough insurance to tap, assets to liquefy, and cash savings to use. We go further by strictly adopting the habit of simple living in order to hope with confidence that the future would be managed well until the last day of our life.
But beyond these standard matters of contemporary living, we ask ourselves: “how do we live the good life?”
This is an important question indeed and, sooner than later, we must find some answers to it. The good life, or right life — to use the analogy in the game of basketball — is comparable to the “right play,” which must have some plausible relations to winning the game, the game of basketball of course. When it comes to health, the good life could be analogous to the “right diet,” which, if it fits one’s bio-psycho-social make up, would make one healthy and live a long and productive life, barring any accident or fatal illness.
Given these analogies, we are obviously searching for certain essential elements that constitute what discerning thinkers would consider the good life. Through their perspectives, we would know whether their idea of the good life is what we should aim to live.
First element comes from Socrates, who, according to Plato, said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Life therefore has to be examined in order to be good. The examined life according to Socrates will necessarily bring up the principles of virtues that have direct impact to one’s quest for the good life. But for you and me who are not philosophically trained to jump from self-examination to virtue, we could simply start with feeling our connection with the universe. By looking inward, we sense that we draw life from nature, from a Supreme Being who created the world. Though Socrates did not build up the concept of a single powerful God, his own maxim of examining one’s life naturally allows us, lesser mortals, to defer to someone greater than all of us, the creator of the universe: He who is God whom we must honor, praise and adore. We are the chosen one whom He assigns to be the center of all creations. He gave us the power and freedom to rule the earth, and to make it our own. Whether through the order of the universe wherein we see God, or through logic and love of knowledge wherein Socrates sees the value of virtue, the examined life indeed must be an essential element in the good life.
A second element is what Aristotle, along with a legion of philosophers including the Stoics, had proposed: that an examined life has to be lived to make it the sort of life that is good. The good life then must be a functioning one, not passive but active. We understand this today as a call to live life to the fullest. “Seize the day” or “Carpe Diem” was the line made famous by Robin Williams who played the role of teacher in that classic movie, Dead Poets Society. William Ernest Henley (1849–1903), through his poem entitled “Invictus,” also tells us that as we choose to live a functioning life, we must be aware that the responsibility lies on us:
It matters not how strait the gate;
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
Indeed, we must not be afraid to live, and no matter what happens, we must face life with optimism and confidence to make a truly functioning life.
This leads me to the third essential element of the good life, one that Shakespeare wrote so vividly about, particularly when bad things happen to us. He gave us the predicament faced by the literary character, Hamlet: whether to “suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles.” Well, whatever it is, to function is to pursue life head on. But literature itself also tells us that life on earth may possibly have all along been determined, or at least, there are certain inevitabilities, which would happen whether we like them or not. We therefore must always be ready for them. We describe these elements that maybe predesigned or predestined as essentially parts of the inevitable life, in which resignation becomes a property in the good life. The things that happen to us in contrast to those that we cause to happen to ourselves are different. Certainly, we cannot enjoy the good life by ignoring its possible downsides such as pain, suffering and death, as if they would never come. For when they do come— as they always will — we, absent any anticipation, would always be caught by surprise. Suddenly, we blindly feel cursed and forlorn for no reasons within our reach. Knowing that there are inevitabilities in life allows us to live the good life despite matters beyond our control. So, in anticipation for the worst, we are reminded of this line from Max Ehrmann’s prose poem, Desiderata (1927): “Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.” For indeed dark imaginings pre-empt us from enjoying the pleasures of living.
Talking about pleasure, the fourth element of the good life would have to do with the fulfillment of our desires, those that give us pleasure and help us avoid pain. In this regard, Epicurus is the philosopher-man; and hedonism is his way of life. However, when it comes to pleasure and pain, we must not have too much of one to make us immune of the other; we must not desire only the avoidance of pain that makes pleasure meaningless, or only the uninterrupted life of pleasure that misses the value of pain. “The goal of the true hedonist therefore is tranquility,” which would then be an essential element of the good life. We learn to accept what is within our reach in order to control what we most desire, which usually comes in the form of something we shouldn’t have, something abusive or damaging, even illegal or immoral. We instead learn to cherry pick the desires that would most enhance, not subvert, our sense of being. And, as we age, we become acutely informed that the less desires we have the more likely we would achieve them. Thus, the pleasurable life may be one we should aim for.
Indeed, the examined, the functioning, the inevitable and the pleasurable life may very well be the good life. However, assuming we live this good life as described, and if we compare this good life to the lives lived by saints and martyrs, we would suddenly feel inadequate and we might be tempted to pressure ourselves, much to our dismay, to live their kind of life, which is the exemplary life.
If we ask Mother Theresa how she was able to live a life above and beyond the call of duty, that she sacrificed to feed the hungry, heal the sick and spend all her life in filth with the poor, she may not know the answer. She would most probably claim that this is what pleases her, and no other vocation would give her the ultimate happiness. You see these saints and martyrs don’t talk about extraordinary courage and rare talents that they possess. They just do what they do.
We in turn look at ourselves and ask: “if we are living the good life, whom is that life good for?” If it is good only for ourselves, then why go through the hassle of self-examination to acquire virtues and in recognition of the universe and God, of full functionality with readiness to embrace life to the fullest, of inevitability of possible misfortunes so caution we must, and of calculated combination of pain and pleasure? Indeed, why look beyond ourselves, if only ourselves we would be concerned about?
Truth is — we cannot possibly cut the umbilical chord that connects us to everyone else. We cannot be happy alone, no matter how we try to celebrate a whole life in solitude. We cannot propose a toast only to ourselves; for life, in reality, is a celebration that cannot happen to a party of one.
In conclusion, the examined, the functioning, the inevitable, the pleasurable life is meant more for others than ourselves. Together, they must constitute a life of service — regardless it is exemplary or not. For to live the good life is simply to serve.
Credits: Thanks to Prof. Silvino who taught me Invictus at Manila Speech Clinic in 1977, my late father Meliton for Desiderata, Dr. Hansen on Classic, Dr. Robinson on Philosophy. Please message me if you’re interested in this subject and the works cited.
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