If you stop any unremarkable person in the street (and most remarkable ones) and ask them point blank: why are we here? You will most likely receive an amused look and not much in the way of an answer. Not that I am suggesting that you try your luck with random strangers, so you may rather want to get some answer from your loved ones, or from people you have some previous acquaintance with (thus significantly reducing the chance of them trying to have you institutionalized), be them sprightly kids or stately seniors with many years of experience under their belts.
Depending on how articulate they are (or their good mood and talkativeness on the day you question them) they may either dismiss the whole idea of us being here for some reason as irrelevant or attempt to give an answer along religious lines (some ultra-powerful and otherworldly intelligence put us here, which isn’t that much of an explanation either, come to think about it). There is a minuscule chance than if they are secular enlightened rationalists they may try to explain to you how evolution happened to shape us in such a way that causing other people’s happiness makes us feel good, and thus trying to make other people’s lives go better is the best answer we can give to “what are we here for” (without, in spite of the professed rationality, realizing that such argument is no answer at all to the original question, which is subtly different).
I won’t pretend to have the ultimate answer to such hefty matter, but for reasons that will become apparent towards the end (of the by now wholly expectable circuitous and somewhat contrived route) I want to devote today’s post to the next best thing to actually, firmly and doubtlessly knowing why we are on this Earth: how to behave as if we already knew the answer to such question (which presupposes that a) such an answer exists and b) it admits of us aligning our life with such ultimate source of purpose), and thus how to live a meaningful life.
Only half-jokingly I proposed in my dissertation defense the “deathbed scenario litmus test” to be applied to any overarching plan for our life, and I still think it is a good epistemic device to separate the wheat from the chaff and help us distinguish if the biggest principle we declare to be following is really important for us or is just pretense and grandstanding. It goes like this: first, formulate as clearly as possible the higher order principle that guides your life, the one you truly resort to when taking important decisions. Although “choose always the chick with the bigger boobs” may seem to some like a plausible life-guiding principle, I am thinking more about things along the lines of “try to maximize the happiness of everybody, giving every living person the same consideration” or “try to maximize my own enjoyment, without directly causing much suffering to others” or “follow to the fullest extent the dictates of such and such religious tradition, as codified in such and such sacred book” (you may notice that what invalidated the big boobs principle was the limited applicability of the decisions to be derived from it, as in many situations in life there are no big-boobed girls involved, although probably the argument could be reformulated to something like “take the course of action that maximizes the chances of chicks with big boobs choosing you as sexual partner”, which would make it applicable enough, but I obviously digress). Back to the test, after having clearly formulated your higher-level guiding principle, imagine yourself on your last day on Earth, somewhat frail but clear-minded. You probably want to think you are in a comfortable environment (your deathbed is still a bed, isn’t it?), surrounded by your loved ones (they don’t have to be your current loved ones, the insufferable auntie Millie who always criticizes your clothes and the second in-law that gloats so frequently about his car being more expensive than yours… just imagine the ideal loved ones you would enjoy having around to impart a final piece of wisdom). Now try to recreate, as faithfully as possible, how you would feel if you contemplated your soon to-be-ended life and confirmed that you had, indeed, been successful in following at all times your guiding principle.
If what truly comes to your mind is a certain sense of disappointment, of “is this all that there is to it?” I’m very sorry to inform you that the guiding principle you had chosen and that you profess to follow is just baloney, a convenient fiction you use to rationalize some of your behaviors, but without being truly committed to it. Because if you were really committed, if your heart were really into it, what you should feel as the culmination of such exercise is the calm contentment, the fulfilled satisfaction that should crown the final moments of a “life well lived”, which should be the goal of every sentient organism. We humans (I can not talk authoritatively of any other sentient being, so I’ll confine myself to our own species) strive for consistency, and our imaginative capabilities are wonderful guides to reveal to us if how we behave daily and what we say is the final reason for us behaving that way are truly aligned or not.
To be honest, I haven’t make anything approaching a scientifically valid test on a wide enough sample of people (and readers of this blog know that I do not believe such a “scientifically valid” survey could ever be performed), but my limited experience tells me that broad utilitarian principles tend to fare quite poorly in this scenario, as the people who nominally spouse them tend to doubt if they weighed every person’s “utility” (or happiness or potential for flourishing) properly and, specially, if they were not “taken in” and ended giving more than what they received, or giving to the wrong persons or causes and thus being accomplices in a suboptimal outcome (which always makes me wonder, suboptimal for whom? And why such optimization was important in the first place?).
Not that I’m claiming that such “deathbed test” is entirely original, as any reader of Hume’s hagiographers may quickly recognize how they were (may be unconsciously) applying it. There is no biography of Hume that doesn’t remark how cheerful and good-spirited he was in his final days, and how such high spirits were considered extraordinarily scandalous by the traditionalists of his age that expected him to be terrified by the prospect of dying and burning eternally in hell, being such a notorious unbeliever. All the biographers that I have read are utterly sympathetic to their subject and fully identified with his world-view (especially the atheistic part, which they all endorse quite uncritically in my humble opinion). They want to convey to us how right Hume was, and how his whole outlook (which happens to coincide millimetrically with the authors’) was validated and vindicated by his last days’ cheerfulness, which is the ultimate proof of that life well lived I was mentioning before.
[on a side note, there is an alternative version, ignored by all the “serious” biographers like Moser and Kemp Smith, according to which Hume only presented such tranquil and unconcerned façade to his friends, whilst being seriously distressed when left alone. The origin of such version is an account by his housekeeper, recorded by Robert Haldane who in turn learned it from a Mr. Abercromby of Tullibody, who had heard it directly from the housekeeper (likely Molly Irvine, if memory serves me well), and of course to find it you have to go to either very scholarly books, like Early responses to Hume’s life and reputation, or to Christian apologies like Haldane’s original Evidence and Authority of Divine Revelation. I confess I’m not sure how credible the alternative account is, but if the image of Hume I’ve built over all these years in my head is even half correct I have to conclude that it has an air of plausibility around it]
Not that the test has been used only to furnish the integrity and validity of Hume’s philosophy. Read any biography of Freud (I’ve done so with the ones penned by Jones, Gay and Roudinesco) and a prominent place is always given to his exemplary death, caused by a cancer in his palate that had been causing him terrible pains for years (well, the immediate cause was a massive dose of morphine administered by his physician more or less at his request, once they had given up hope that he could be kept alive much more). As Gay titled the chapter devoted to such somber episode, “the death of a stoic” (regardless of the fact that for all those years he complained, in a most non-stoic manner, of his unbearable discomfort to every single person he talked to or corresponded with…), and such wholesome demise is used as a final validation of the Viennese’s life work and of his shambolic theories.
Back to my main argument, then, you may remember (after this longish detour) that I introduced the deathbed test as a mental tool to help us take decisions that accumulate coherently and end up forming that “life well lived” we could fantasize with reviewing with joy in our last moments. And I mentioned that if we started with all-encompassing principles, the utilitarian one didn’t seem to fare too well. One possibility open to us, then, could be to dismiss the usefulness of such all-encompassing principles (that’s what Johnathan Dancy did in a very remarkable book, Ethics without principles). But I propose a better alternative: set it as your duty to perfect yourself, and strive for the happiness of those around you (not very original, I know, but I’ve always unashamedly proclaimed myself a Kantian). How much striving, and exactly for who between the many, many people that in this age of overpopulation are wont to surround us is a question I’ll leave for another day (note just that I’m not proposing to strive for a maximum happiness, just for a sensible dose of it).
Let’s turn our attention to the perfection part. I mentioned in another post (doing hard things is... well, hard) that our society teaches us to seek instant gratification, and to scorn any difficult pursuit (except if it can be monetized, as the only ultimate goal it understands and recognizes is to make more money so we can enjoy a higher social status). Devoting effort to become better flies in the face of such teaching, as to get better at anything, past the novice phase when improvement is easy, requires grit and dedication and determination, it specially requires renunciation to a number of things (consumption of the mass-marketed commodities and entertainments we have excelled at producing in ever increasing amounts) that society doesn’t want any of us to renounce to. What they want you to do is to eat junk food and watch reality TV. Spend most of your time on the couch being mindlessly indoctrinated in the latest fashion trend, which always reduces itself to buying something that is both unnecessary and expensive. Because that’s what life in the XXIst century reduces itself to: buy more, and spend all your time either buying things or working for money to have more things or being brainwashed to want the things in the first place.
I remember reading from Jim Wendler something along the lines of “I’d rather go to the gym, do one really tough, all-out set of squats setting a new PR and return home knowing I am a better man than I was before”. You may recoil at the idea of being able to move more weight on an iron bar in your back (that you have previously loaded, and you will leave in exactly the same place after completing the set) being equated with human excellence, but I do believe there is a profound truth in it. A definite aspect of excellence is having a functioning body, and not just a functioning one, but one capable of doing difficult things, the more difficult the better. And the way to maintain and even improve that capability is through training, and beyond certain point that training is going to demand renunciation of other, easier pursuits…
I’m not saying, of course, that physical excellence is the only pursuit that passes the deathbed test, but it gives us some clues about the common thread such pursuits may have: progress can be measured by others, they have a set of rules about them that you voluntarily submit to (so the aforementioned progress can be assessed), they draw from (and in turn they help develop) human capabilities that have been prized in all societies and all ages (I’m not only thinking in physical capabilities like speed, strength, coordination, agility, etc. but also in mental ones like eloquence, persuasiveness, numerical ability or abstract thought). That’s why great achievements in any of them cause admiration and esteem (or caused, according to my sometimes oversimplifying characterization of modern society the only recognized source of admiration and esteem is the possession of vast quantities of money).
Thus my injunction in the title of this post: do indeed strive to go to bed every day having devoted a substantial part of your day to become a better version of you, along the multiple dimensions that form our whole personality. I’ll share the ones I monitor more systematically:
· Becoming a better professional: here it is not enough to take one good decision, or produce a certain deliverable with the right quality or complete a certain business transaction, but to acquire lasting capabilities (through consistent practice, active learning and continuous self-analysis and self-criticism) that can have a differential impact in the company we work for (or run). You know you have become a better professional when you reach a significant milestone (a deserved promotion, which should be but the official recognition of the betterment in this area), you substantially reorient the strategy of the division or area under your responsibility or you complete a major project (that required the coordination of multiple resources)
· Becoming a better athlete: this one is pretty easy, as any athletic discipline has its own criteria of excellence. I personally endeavor to be a better powerlifter, weightlifter and shot putter and every single day I go to the gym I execute a well thought out routine to achieve precisely that
· Becoming a better thinker: one the other hand, this one is pretty tricky, as it is damn difficult to judge for oneself how advanced a thinker one is. I do know that reading the thoughts of other people is essential (given the self-referential character of modern philosophy it is difficult to escape the impression that for many professional philosophers thinking has become only reading other people and talking about what they said, without having to add anything original or of their own), so I have an overall sense of how I’m progressing by my ability to understand more and more abstruse books of the issues I’m interested in
· Becoming a better writer: tough again to measure, and it easily mixes with the previous ones, as more complex thoughts require more technical ability as a writer to be conveyed (but also tend to jumble and confuse the prose used to convey them, as this blog amply and extensively exemplifies)
· Becoming a better husband/ father/ son/ brother/ friend: this one is obviously huge, and is the one that connects the two halves of my original injunction (perfect yourselves AND make those around you happy), as what you try to do developing your capabilities to love and nurture and support and inspire and empathize and comfort and cheer and amuse is precisely to be abler to foster that happiness. I’m not going to go all self-helpy here and rap about how important love is and how you should a) do more of it and b) work self-consciously to get better at it, but this is the BIG one. If you suck at every single other aspect of your life but excel at this you’ve hit the jackpot, and can indeed life a wonderful, rewarding, well-lived life. If on the other hand you are great at some of the others but suck at this… I’m sorry to tell you you have utterly failed as human being, even if you are Steve Jobs and there are hordes of sycophants heaping praises on you and proclaiming you are the better thing that happened to the human race since the invention of sliced bread
Of course progressing in all the dimensions at once is a tough balancing act, and sometimes you may feel like one of those Chinese acrobats that keep multiple plates spinning atop flimsy poles, so be selective with how many plates you put up in the air. But once there, what I encourage you to do is to actually ensure that every single day you take action to improve in some of them. You do not reach significant milestones in your job every day (and there are weekends and holidays, for God’s sake!) but you can train most days, read something explicitly aligned with what interest you more so you can think more deeply about it, you can practice your writing and put it out in the open for others to judge and to comment and to criticize (yes, it is called blogging)… and most especially, you can sit down to have a conversation (or a telephone call, or just an IM) with your wife/ son/ mother/ sister/ best friend just to nurture and grow and deepen and enrich the relationship, you can plan for joint activities, you can actively contribute to build together a shared life.
If you keep on doing it day after day, month after month, year after year you will discover that a) you actually become pretty good at some of those things and b) when the day of leaving this world finally arrives (and it will arrive, sorry to break the news to those that believe in “conquering death” through nanotechnology, genetic engineering or downloading your personality to an eternally functioning computer) you will look back at your life and confidently assert that you lived it well, that it was fully worth it, that you made every minute count and, regardless of how successful you were compared with other people, you ended up being the best version of you that you could be. I honestly don’t know if there is another life after this one, and if there being another one that makes this one more or less meaningful. What I do know is that if I come to my last day having that feeling my life will definitely have been meaningful for me. Which is what I stated at the beginning of this post I would do