You’ve likely heard the saying, “Everyone dies, but few live.” Today, I’m going to analyze what that means. It’s always sounded like a self-help cliche’, but I think that I can find something worth attending to in it. What needs to be done is to figure out the definition of the good life. (Yes, I know that we’ve been trying to do that since at least the ancient Greeks–or was it the Hindus?–but it needs doing from time to time.) Here’s my list of its elements. Yours may vary, and I’d like to know what other ideas you have. These certainly aren’t commandments. Call them aspirations.
1. Do what you want to do to make a living.
Note that I didn’t write that you ought to do what you want and hope that it makes a living. There are many in this world who would love to earn their daily bread by playing in a band or painting pictures, but alas, such is not often to be. Neither are we likely to be professional athletes. On the other hand, there are jobs that may not be lucrative, but will pay the bills, so long as we are realistic about expenses. I do understand that one sometimes just has to take whatever’s available–believe me, I do understand. Just don’t make it permanent. I love teaching, even though I’m unlikely ever to be more than an adjunct instructor. I’ve had other jobs, and I’ve always returned to teaching college English. It’s what I am made to do.
2. Have a hobby.
Some of us can’t get our dream jobs or even jobs that we enjoy, so my first suggestion may not work out. But we can do something else. I’ve had some wretched jobs from time to time, and in each one, I was glad that I could daydream during off moments about going home to write. At other moments, I contemplated the effects of various bullets on soda bottles. (We won’t discuss in what ways those bottles were acting as substitutes.) Play an instrument, or draw pictures. Make furniture. Yes, hobbies can get expensive, as I well know, but I’ve learned more with basic equipment in mine than I could ever learn with the spendy gear. The beginner’s skills can come at a reasonable cost, and even masters have to practice scales. One potential benefit of having a hobby is that it may show you what you ought to be doing about the first item.
3. Love someone thoroughly.
This one has a caveat. The person must love you the same way in return. If not, move on. (I’ve learned this one through experience.)
I know that life with a mate is better than one without. Yes, the pop psychologists tell us otherwise, but they’re just saying that to sell books. Whatever the reason, the typical human needs someone else in that person’s life. This is not co-dependency; it’s our nature. There’s joy in a relationship and mutual support. There’s also the assurance that we’re living for someone else as well as for ourselves. That pushes us out of our natural selfishness.
4. Do some good.
Note that I didn’t write, “Do every good.” I’ve known people who believe that we’re obliged to do every good deed that is possible for us. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it leads to exhaustion, at which point no good deed can be done. It also makes a person an insufferable busybody. That being said, I’ll quote my favorite line from Kingdom of Heaven: “What man is a man who does not make the world better?” Ideally, you do this one by attending to the first three, but most of us can do something. I haven’t defined what good is, and that’s deliberate. Most of us have a conscience and can discriminate between better and worse. Use those skills that you have. Those who lack them won’t get much out of this anyway.
5. Enjoy the world.
I was raised to believe that the world is evil and that it was my duty to save myself for the next life. (Save meaning restrain and withhold, not the theological definition.) It’s taken me a long time to absorb the truth about what nonsense that was. The world is filled with wine and music and cars on the highway to pass on the right and curiously shaped rocks and ferrets and on and on. Of course, if you’re doing the first four, you’re likely doing this one.
H. L. Mencken told us a while ago that Puritanism is “the haunting fear that somewhere, someone may be happy.” I’ve had to learn to get over my puritanical upbringing. One good medicine for that is Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.” Play that song, and be of good cheer.
That, for now, is my list. There are only five commandments here, but the highest mountain in Arkansas doesn’t even top 3,000 feet, and I ain’t Moses. I’m not even Charlton Heston. These are really suggestions, anyway. I don’t imagine them to be comprehensive, but they are something of what I’ve learned during my time. Feel free to offer other items. I do hope that I’ve avoided the kind of easy virtue that is sold in the self-help aisle.
(One of these days, I’ll get back to cranky commentary about politicians, grammar, and guns. . .)