Whenever I confront the various stupid and short-sighted decisions I’ve made in my life, I console myself with this hopeful thought: In my next life I will reap the benefits of having worked out all the conundrums of this life, so my next life will be much closer to the good life. The problem is (aside from the distinct possibility that there is no next life): I still haven’t figured out what the good life is.
I’ve asked the question many times: What makes for the good life? Being a front runner on the fast track? “Spiritual fulfillment” (whatever that is)? Abstaining from drugs and alcohol? Good pecs and abs? Or what many people apparently believe, at least in America: money? Until a few years ago, I never thought much about money. You might say the degree to which I didn’t think about money was admirable; or you might say it was stupid. It was, in any case, quintessentially me. It wasn’t that I was awash in money and so didn’t need to think about it. It’s just that I was content to live modestly, and I’ve always been a head-in-the-clouds type of person, much more concerned with questions of a decidedly philosophical bent than with money – questions like, What is the good life?
Maybe the good life is a life in which one has achieved, or perhaps is just pursuing, a life goal. But I suppose it would depend on what that goal is. (Committing the perfect crime, for instance, probably wouldn’t qualify.) When I think of what I would most like to achieve in my life, I think, “wisdom.” A simple enough answer. Not good pecs and abs, not the winning trophy in the race through life, not money. The trouble with wisdom, though, is that I may not know when (or if) I’ve achieved it. We know good pecs and abs when we see them; we know wealth when we see it, although I suppose we could argue about how rich is rich. But wisdom is not tangible and may be harder to recognize. Maybe wisdom is knowing what the good life is (in which case I am indeed not yet wise).
And I would be less than completely honest if I said that I don’t care at all about money or pecs and abs – actually, I don’t care about pecs and abs; until very recently, I didn’t even know what they are. But I am not above caring a little about how I look, and I gather that the interest in pecs and abs is just the most recent manifestation of the age old interest in looking good. I care enough about how I look to spend some time shopping for clothes I think look good on me (as opposed to no time shopping for clothes, which is the amount of time I would spend if this were determined only by how much I enjoy shopping). And I do watch what I eat so I won’t become overweight – as much in pursuit of good looks, I admit, as health. (More accurately, it is in pursuit of staving off the deterioration of whatever looks I currently have.) And while until recently I never thought much about money, recently I think about it often. There is something that I want very much that costs buckets full of money, and that is good college educations for my daughter and my son. Because I am unlikely to inherit the money for this, I will have to earn it if I want to buy this rather pricey consumer good. And so I think a lot about whether I can earn enough money and about whether the effort will be worth it. I want to purchase excellent college educations for my children because I think that these (pricey) college educations will greatly increase the chances that my children, whom I adore, will have a shot at the good life – whatever that is.
Okay. Let’s start again. I don’t know what the good life is, but I do know certain things. For instance, I know that a life full of money but depleted of warm human relationships is not the good life. So it takes more than just money to have the good life. But does it require money? Money may not be sufficient, but is it necessary? Clearly some money is necessary. Most people would agree that a life of chronic starvation and deprivation is not the good life, no matter how warm one’s relationships with other people may be. But what about monks – people who have no material goods and no money to buy any, but feel they have a relationship with God that sustains them? Don’t they live the good life? But remember that, while they may have nothing of their own, someone is providing the money to purchase what is needed to sustain them. It really does take some money, whoever provides it, simply to avoid dying. The question, I guess, is how much money is necessary for the good life. And that gets back to the original question: What is the good life?
But asking how much money is necessary to live the good life – or, in a similar vein, how much admiration and recognition from others is necessary (towards which end we focus on things like pecs and abs and winning the race through life) – presupposes that the good life is good because one’s own needs and desires are all satisfied. Maybe the good life is a life in which one is good, rather than a life that is good to one. Maybe Mother Teresa lived the good life. But do you have to be a Mother Teresa to live the good life? Do you have to forego a family of your own, to forego all the usual sources of pleasure in life, to devote yourself to the betterment of people who were given the very shortest straws in life? Is there some middle range of self-sacrifice that is good enough?
Back in the heady days of the sixties, some people thought that the good life was a life in which one struggled against the huge and formidable forces of oppression. Back in those days, on campuses like Berkeley and Michigan and Columbia there were those who looked down on the future-MBAs and the pre-meds as people who were primarily in this life for themselves, people who were too occupied looking out for number one to take notice of the larger picture – a picture which was (and still is) marred by terrible cruelty, inequality, injustice, and poverty – there to see for anyone who cared (or dared) to look. Whatever happened to those idealistic and indignant students? They are now middle aged. A few (a very few) are still carrying the banners. A few committed suicide. But most have joined the ranks of the masses of middle-aged folks whose primary concerns center around keeping their own little family boats afloat. And that, it turns out, is a much tougher job than many of us might have imagined. The pre-meds and the MBAs, meanwhile, probably went on to a comfortable middle age well cushioned against financial stress. But for us head-in-the-clouds types, or those banner-carrying types, the realities of life are sobering indeed. It turns out that, if you want to live decently, the mortgage must be paid; if you want to have children, well, hey, they cost a lot of money … These are the basic, boring facts of life. Unless you inherit, you have to earn it. One way or the other, we make our choices, whether we realize it at the time or not. (The ugly little social blemish that some of us are given better choices in life than others was one of the causes taken up by the student radicals.) It may have felt exciting to fight for worthy causes while we lived the radical student life, looking down at the money-grubbing MBAs and pre-meds, but those who were fighting for worthy causes to help others were not focusing on how to help themselves. Will they now be the ones needing help? Well, some may be, and some may not. Nothing is so simple. There is something to be said for fighting oppression, which certainly exists, even though I cannot argue that it was a fight well fought. Turns out that it was a lot harder to fight the forces that be. Life is sobering indeed.
We tend to think monotonically. Bigger is better. That implies that even bigger must be even better. More is better, so ever more must be ever better. Perhaps our notions about the good life are fashioned by this monotonic thinking. The more money, the better life is; or the more self-sacrifice, the better we are and the more we live the good life. But in so many aspects of life, more is clearly not better. Past a certain point, more becomes worse. If we stuff ourselves, we feel sick. Perhaps there is some point, some optimum, which is best — the right amount of money to strive for, the right level of giving, the exactly best degree of concern over one’s appearance. Do we know where these points are? Of course not. But if we believe that the good life is one with the most of anything – or that achieving the most of anything is what makes life good – we will always feel like failures, always be unhappy, for there is always someone with more money, someone more beautiful, someone more self-sacrificing.
Is the good life perhaps just the well-balanced life? A life in which one’s own pleasures are balanced against the needs and pleasures of others, in which one somehow knows when satisfaction ends and gluttony begins, in which we can somehow dare to look at the deep, dark wells of poverty, cruelty and despair in the world and try to help those in them without falling in ourselves. And if we have not yet achieved this elusive balance, perhaps we are living the pretty good life if we are most sincerely trying.