So, what does it mean to live a good life, and how do we go about doing so? Approximately 2,500 years ago the Greek philosophers began asking those questions, and we’re still trying to make that determination today. Obviously, the answer isn’t easy to find. On the other hand, maybe the problem has been the questions themselves.
About the same time in antiquity, thousands of miles away in northwestern India, a man named Siddhattha Gotama came to the realization that the source of human suffering was desire (or, as it is most often referred to, craving). Thus, pursuing a good life, in any fashion, was in and of itself antithetical to being happy. True and lasting happiness could only be present when one let go of all attachments.
I would like to leave you with an interesting list of guidelines for living one’s life that comes from a surprising source (which I’ll mention below). As you read the list, think about what life would be like if we all aspired to live in accordance with these tenets, as well as where you think this list might have come from.
- One should strive to act with compassion and empathy towards all creatures in accordance with reason.
- The struggle for justice is an ongoing and necessary pursuit that should prevail over laws and institutions.
- One’s body is inviolable, subject to one’s own will alone.
- The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo your own.
- Beliefs should conform to our best scientific understanding of the world. We should take care never to distort scientific facts to fit our beliefs.
- People are fallible. If we make a mistake, we should do our best to rectify it and resolve any harm that may have been caused.
- Every tenet is a guiding principle designed to inspire nobility in action and thought. The spirit of compassion, wisdom, and justice should always prevail over the written or spoken word.
No doubt most of you will be surprised to learn that these are the seven basic tenets espoused by the The Satanic Temple, and can be found on their website (thesatanictemple.com). Although some people will be immediately offended by Satanism, since I’m an atheist it doesn’t mean anything to me (good or bad). So, when judging their view of how to live a good life, I like the emphasis on science (my initial career training), compassion (very Buddhist), wisdom (my top strength), and justice.
I am by no means advocating this particular list, nor any other, but rather I’m reiterating that we still don’t know what makes life good for any particular person. We may know a lot about ways in which some people are happy, and those principles may be true for most people most of the time, and yet people are complex. Personal differences, cultural differences, situational differences, and more, all make it quite difficult to simply say, “This will make you happy, and that will make you unhappy!”
What then, are people to do? If the situation is so complex, and if biological set points predetermine our happiness and there’s little we can do about that, we might ask a quite different question: Is life worth living? In 1897, America’s preeminent psychologist William James published an essay by that very title (James, 1897/1992). James began by describing how some people see the value in life, indeed they fully enjoy life, no matter what happens to them or around them. Regarding people who have lost their way in life (indeed, he included those who are suicidal), and relying heavily on religious faith (though not any particular religion), James wrote these words:
…Suppose, however thickly evils crowd upon you, that your unconquerable subjectivity proves to be their match, and that you find a more wonderful joy than any passive pleasure can bring in trusting ever in the larger whole. Have you not now made life worth living on these terms?…This life is worth living, we can say, since it is what we make it, from the moral point of view, and we are determined to make it from that point of view, so far as we have anything to do with it, a success…These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. (pp. 501-503; James, 1897/1992)
Before closing, I would like to share a story that was published in my book Purple Vision (Kelland, 2013). It’s a chapter entitled The Horror of Life, and since the book is my own there is no special need for permission to republish it (or rather, I whole heartedly give myself permission). The story addresses what I consider to be the true issues regarding positive psychology: are you trying to live a better life; are you trying to make life better? As noted above, my life is not one of happiness, but it is one of meaning. In my own way, I try to make the world a better place. My inadequacies are many, but there are times when I’m willing to do something. Just that – do something.
* * *
The Horror of Life
“Again, bhikkhus, as though he were to see a corpse thrown aside in a charnel ground, one, two, or three days dead, bloated, livid, and oozing matter, a bhikkhu compares this same body with it thus: ‘This body too is of the same nature, it will be like that, it is not exempt from that fate.’ As he abides thus diligent … That too is how a bhikkhu develops mindfulness of the body.”
from the Kayagatasati Sutta by Gotama Buddha; pg. 952
in Bhikkhu Nanamoli & Bhikku Bodhi, 1995
So, why the sudden switch to something so unpleasant? I had an astonishing experience while flying home, one of those experiences that puts so much of life in perspective. It occurred on the first of my flights, from Los Angeles to Houston.
These days, airlines allow people with disabilities to board first. My left hip has been really hurting me lately, so I had my good cane with me, and I took advantage of the early boarding. However, getting on first, was a very old and very frail woman. Her daughter was taking her home, probably for good. I would guess the daughter was 65-70 years old, and the mother at least 90 years old! I later learned that the mother was also suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
It was very difficult for the crew to get the woman boarded, but they finally succeeded, and then I took my seat, which happened to be nearby.
In the midst of the flight, I heard the daughter and her mother fussing a bit. Apparently the mother needed to go to the bathroom, but she couldn’t get up to walk. The daughter said that if her mother didn’t get up she would have to go to the bathroom in her pants. No one else seemed to even notice what was going on, and I debated whether I really wanted to help. Interestingly, I happened to be reading a book on Buddhism by Stephen Batchelor. I had just read a paragraph which began with the sentence:
“Compassion is the very heart and soul of awakening.”
(pg. 90; Batchelor, 1997)
I decided the right thing to do was to help the two women. So, I got up and went over to offer my assistance.
The first thing we needed to do was raise the arm of the seat, but I couldn’t find the secret little switch that made that possible. I went and asked the steward who had first done it, and he came to help. He showed me how to get to the switch, and we helped the woman get up. Together, we helped her get to the bathroom.
As the steward went back to serve passengers on the flight, I waited outside the bathroom while the daughter helped her mother. I let her know that I was right outside in case of an emergency.
Primarily, I wanted the daughter to know that she wasn’t alone. I can hardly imagine how difficult it is to help someone so old, so frail, and suffering from Alzheimer’s as well. I’m sure I couldn’t do it. The steward told me several times how wonderful he thought it was that I was helping. But all I could think about was that helping for a few minutes was a whole lot easier than actually being a caregiver for someone whose life has become such a challenge. And that’s all I was doing, just helping for a few minutes.
Nonetheless, the steward knew that my assistance left him free to continue serving the other passengers on the flight. So he offered me a free cocktail. I ended up choosing a can of Heineken. It was good!
After quite a while, the mother was done with the task at hand. The daughter still needed to clean up the bathroom, so I then helped the mother back to her seat. Basically I just supported her, but she needed so much support that I was pretty much carrying her. As I sat her into her seat she begged me not to give her back to her daughter, who she said was beating her. Wow! I saw no evidence that this woman was being abused, but who knows. I attributed her statement to her Alzheimer’s disease, and I’ll pray that’s the case. Still, it’s sad that she lives in such fear due to her illness.
I then went back to the daughter, who was just finishing up in the bathroom. I put my hand on her shoulder and told her that I recognized she was doing what so many people dread having to do someday, and that I just wanted to help so that she knew she wasn’t alone. She was crying as she thanked me for helping.
A minute later I settled back into my seat. Still, there was nothing to indicate that anyone else on the flight even noticed what had happened. Everyone just wanted to keep to themselves, either not wanting to get involved or at least not wanting to admit that they’d done nothing to help when they might have had the chance.
I picked up my book and read the following:
The way of the Buddha is to know yourself;
To know yourself is to forget yourself;
To forget yourself is to be awakened by all things.
Dogen, the Genjo Koan, pg. 91, cited in Batchelor, 1997
The significance of this passage was astonishing, to such an extent that it has to be my latest example of synchronicity (as defined by Carl Jung). Allow me to break it down.
“The way of the Buddha is to know yourself;”
I am disabled. My compassion for the elderly woman was likely stirred by my identification with her. She needed help to accomplish simple physical tasks. After my hip surgeries I needed assistance as well. And, it’s a fact that we will all grow old and feeble if we happen to live long enough.
“To know yourself is to forget yourself;”
Many of us do not want to get involved in difficult situations. It’s also true that people tend to rely on others to help, thus resulting in the so-called bystander effect. In other words, the more people there are to help, the lower the chances that any one person will step up. So, I had to set aside any personal hesitation and decide to step up and help. And that’s exactly what I did.
“To forget yourself is to be awakened by all things.”
By helping the two women I had done something good – my good deed for the day, so to speak. Afterward, I felt good about having done it. They needed help, and I set aside the common inclinations either to not get involved or to leave it to someone else. I had put into action what I believe, and what I teach to others. Those others include both my students at the college and my own two sons.
There is an old saying: practice what you preach. I did. Perhaps the world would be a better place if more people did the same.
For some strange reason, this chance encounter inspired me to write a haiku. I thought of it in my mind, and told myself to remember it. But I forgot. While I was hiking a couple days after getting home I remembered the basic elements of the haiku. I reworked it a little while continuing my hike, and here is the result:
An old woman cries
Her mother needs so much help
I offered two hands
It’s hard for me to describe how much this encounter between myself and these two women has moved me. Combined with the extraordinary book I was reading by Stephen Batchelor, one of the best I have ever read on any aspect of Buddhism or other eastern philosophies, I have found my resolve to BE enlightened most extraordinarily renewed and enhanced.
I expect I am going to grow much older than I am now, and I know that if I do I will likely end up like the frail, old mother I met on the flight. There is simply no avoiding it if one lives long enough to die of old age. As Gotama Buddha taught us some 2,500 years ago we are “not exempt from that fate.”
How much of myself, as someone who is disabled, did I see in that frail old woman? Did I see my loneliness in relation to her Alzheimer’s-induced isolation? When she expressed her fear of being beaten, did I feel something of my own fears in life?
Something struck a chord deep within me. Perhaps I will never know what it was. Perhaps I don’t want to know what it is. All I know is that as I held that old woman in my hands it felt like her entire skeleton would just crumble into dust right there in my hands.
There was death in her eyes, and I met her gaze deeply. I sensed a peace that she was fighting to avoid. I wanted to tell her to let go, but she isn’t ready to do so. Not yet anyway.
* * *
In closing, I would like to return to the ancient Greek philosophers. Xenophon was a student of Socrates, a well-known historian (see, e.g., Xenophon, 1887), and like Plato (also a student of Socrates) wrote in defense of their teacher following Socrates’ execution. His glowing description of what a great man he believed Socrates to have been is full of positive psychology and self-actualization:
Of those who knew what Socrates was like, all whose hearts are set upon goodness continue still to miss him more than anything, because they feel that he was their greatest help in the cultivation of goodness.
Socrates was, as I have described him, so devout that he never did anything without the sanction of the gods; so upright that he never did the smallest harm to anybody, but conferred the greatest benefits upon those who associated with him; so self-disciplined that he never chose the more pleasant course instead of the better; so judicious that he never made a mistake in deciding between better and worse, and needed no advice, but was self-sufficient for such decisions, capable of stating and distinguishing such alternatives, and capable both of otherwise appraising and of exposing errors and encouraging towards goodness and excellence of body and mind. In view of these qualities he seemed to me to be the perfect example of goodness and happiness.
If anyone disapproves of this assessment, let him compare other people’s characters with these qualities, and then make his own decision.
(pp. 227-228; Xenophon, 1970)