Comic by Bill Kliban!
The outline of our lives is largely up to chance: we are who we are roughly because of the fickle facts of where we were born, who our friends and family are, where we got into college, what job we happen to fall into – we can do little to influence these factors, and thus we have little command over the greater shape of our selves. It is very appealing to call this broad outline our real self, though, because if we do so we are left with a pretty solid self. I am, for instance, a young graduate of Grinnell College interested in writing, living in Boulder.
But the downside of this perspective is that it leaves the larger part of ourselves – our happiness, our dreams – up to chance. Either we accept this chance, or we convince ourselves that we can with brute force of personality alter the outline of our lives – which seems as much folly as whipping the ocean – or, alternatively, we can identify a different part of our lives on which to base our selves.
This rough outline, for all of its explanatory ease, does not account the real beauty and joy of life. It’s a commonplace piece of wisdom that the rich are not necessarily happy, that the old are not necessarily wise. The real insight of this cliché is that the happiness and wisdom a life can afford comes from more subtle, smaller things than the usual markers of human success. And over these small things – the fine details within the broad outline of a life, those details that can actually make us happy – we have a great deal of control. This is a comfort.
We are faced with a series of small choices throughout our days, and these small choices can make up a texture that can make the difference between and fulfilled life and a disappointed one, between joy and loneliness, between art and artifice.
But I’m getting too abstract. That’s the danger when we’re talking about philosophy: since we want to explain some essential thing we must abstract away from the embarrassing contingency of our personal experience. But it’s that embarrassing personal experience which forms the edifice of the thought in the mind of the thinker. If it is removed too hastily, the kind of philosophy I’m trying to do here – a conscious, judicious searching for a better way of living – can be confused with another sort of philosophy, one that is intent to stare into an unsolvable Gordian-belly-button of abstraction. Whatever we think about, be it physics or logic or medicine or epistemology, must, in the end – even if we know not how – return to answer the question of how we live our lives.
So let’s get a little specific. I have just got off work, I am sitting on a chair at home, and I have a chunk of free time: I have a decision to make. Let’s make my decision easy: I can either watch TV or read a book. If I read a book (let’s say, for the sake of my argument, that it’s a really good book) I might feel a little richer; if I watch TV (Dancing With The Stars is on) I will gain nothing. But watching TV is easy. And reading a book – God. I deserve some rest today. Who wants to read a book?
We are faced with those small, drastic decisions every day: Should we go out for a run in the morning, or sleep in? Should we see our friends today, or play a video-game? Should we write a letter, or check our e-mail? These examples might not illuminate the crisis nearly as well as I’d like them too, so let me put it into a nutshell before we go any further. What we’re talking about is the choice between an easy-going and a strenuous life.
We do not recognize our ability to make these small choices because they are so small they seem insignificant in the rush of our larger daily decisions. The majority of the mental heavy-lifting for these small questions, then, is done underneath the surface of our consciousnesses. But when we bring these choices into the full light of our awareness, we can better see their outcomes.
The easy-going option is one that seems best in the short term. The strenuous option is one which takes more effort, but may be more rewarding.
The problem isn’t that the easy-going option is bad, and the strenuous option good. If that were the case, our lives would be significantly easier, and we would simply chose the good over the bad as easily as we would chose to eat a ripe peach over a rotten one. The problem is that both the easy-going option and the strenuous one can be goods, but they are goods of very different qualities and outcomes. What we have to do is weight the costs and the benefits against one another.
The easy-going options are just so easy. We are not helped by our culture which is so tailored to fulfill our present desires. With a minimum of effort, we can turn on our TV, eat some chips, play a video game, drink a beer. And these things are immediately and definitely pleasurable. Why the hell would you go for a run, or read a book of philosophy, or meditate, or pray, or any of these things that are so damned hard?
Because a lot of times, the strenuous option can provide more pleasure in the long run. If we chose to write a letter instead of watching a TV show, we may not get such a strong immediate sense of satisfaction, but our friendship with whoever we’re writing a letter to might be strengthened.
Even if we do not choose the strenuous option always – and why should we? – thinking consciously about these small decisions can make our lives better. When we are conscious over our inner life, when we take command of the way we think instead of reflexively falling back on the easiest course of action, we can better craft the world we live in.
Which is to say that the strenuous option is always the best. It is only that we face a difficulty of perspective between near and far things, and the easy-going option seems, more often than not, unnaturally better than the strenuous option. It takes a conscious act of thought to correct this skewed perception.
This choice between the strenuous and the easy-going option falls into much starker relief when we think of our perceptions. Although the examples above were all decisions about actions, the more common decision we are forced to make is not between one action or another, but between one way of seeing the world or another. We have a choice between whether to view a personal slight as an insufferable affront against our ego, or to laugh at it. We have a choice about whether we walk to work in the morning we think about work, or whether we recognize the beauty to the early morning light. We make these sort of tiny decisions about interpretation of perception en masse thousands of times a day. So the power of being conscious about your perceptions is massive.
And it is thus how we can make a work of art out of our lives. We discover that the fine texture of our days are dependant upon us. Rather than being a still observer to our lives, meant to watch the overall progress only sleepily, we discover we are largely our own authors. And we have then a responsibility to ourselves to live beautifully, much as an artist has a responsibility to consciously craft the flow of a story, or the arrangement of a painting.
If we live our lives unconsciously, for the most part, we will have the same problem with our lives as faces bad art: the problem with the bulk of high-school poetry, is that the poet has simply taken their feelings for granted and placed them on paper, without the least sort of consideration. A mindful life makes us considerate of our very feelings. And, instead of living in a world wherein our feelings and perceptions are largely out of our control, it gives us, little individuals that we are, the ability to craft our feelings and perceptions. And while we have little direct control over the broader course of our life, over these small things we are small kings.
It is not as easy to live consciously as I’ve made it out to be. If our minds are instruments of joy, we have to practice them regularly. Now, it’s far from my purview as an essayist to tell you how to get this practice. I can only point in a general direction. Since the way we make art is much like how we can make our own lives artistically, an artistic life – from arranging flowers to writing stories – no matter if it is done good or bad, can help develop this critical sense. One can pray, or sing, or run. I myself find great solace in meditation.
But the choice of practice, much like the painter’s choice of brush, is purely instrumental. As long as it works, it doesn’t really matter what it is. As long as we practice.