A Prescription (or a heap of self-evident clichés, depending on your perspective) 24/6/2013
Clearly it’s presumptuous, even ludicrous, and perhaps hypocritical to tell others how to live. On the other hand I think it’s reasonable to reflect on what makes life worthwhile, given that most of us will never be national leaders or even high achievers, in the conventional sense. Notable philosophers like Peter Singer and ancient Greeks and Romans have written volumes about this, so what is there to add? I guess this is a brief and therefore accessible 2013 perspective, aimed unashamedly at my own children and grandchildren, who will quite likely never read it. As I reach the later years of my life, it’s not surprising that I should consider this issue, or to put it another way: it would be sad indeed to reach the end with a great sense of regret about things done or undone; or another: we never know how long we’ve got, so better to do it well.
There are a few givens that are so basic as to not require much comment. I am not a practicing Christian (if I have a goddess it’s Gaia) but Christian (and other) religious precepts put it clearly: no lying, cheating, stealing or harming others. Criminals and sociopaths usually make at least one big mistake – thinking that they are smart enough not to get caught; and time in gaol, while perhaps a learning experience, is certainly a waste of what valuable little time we are allocated. Other than these dire considerations, we can look at how we live externally – what we do and how we behave, and also our internal life. I have less to say about that, maybe because I haven’t spent as much time introspecting and reflecting as I might have. That has probably meant more impulsive decision-making, which could be disastrous or successful – as first impulses may often, but not always, be the right ones. Occasionally an urgent impulsive decision is called for, but mostly there’s time for reflection. It seems better to develop a certain robustness or resilience in facing life’s challenges, while retaining sensitivity. There will always be unexpected twists and turns, but we humans are a remarkably adaptive species. Even if life is reduced in quality or quantity, one can make the best of it – adversity may open other doors. Thinking and reflecting needs time – quality time and a clear head, rather than the last exhausted moments before sleep, so some time made available for reflection is a useful thing to create.
I find external life – actions and behaviour – easier to consider. How we behave, how we do things, can be as important as what we do. To live ethically is largely to treat others well, particularly those with less power or resources than us. An initially successful business might break no laws but exploit its workers; as all businesses depend to a degree on staff loyalty, such exploitation seems very short-sighted. If we do our jobs just to maximize our wealth, then we may do them a lot less well; doctoring is a case in point – seeing too many patients too quickly doesn’t allow practice at an acceptable standard. And if in public or private life we attract enmity by treating other people without kindness, fairness or good humour, our own life will be the worse, as protracted conflict drains much energy.
What we do in life is perhaps the most obvious ingredient in a life’s value. In developed western societies, work takes up a lot of time. Most occupations can be seen as worthwhile or contributing to society in some way, but some are hard to justify. Cigarette producers create the conditions for much disease and untimely death, and some industries contribute disproportionately to pollution, environmental destruction and species loss – ‘planet-fuckers’, so called. The decision about whether to train for specialized work or remain a generalist, or indeed a creative artist is an important one, especially as developed societies have taken an increasingly specialized approach to work and its rewards. A good starting point is to consider your own personality – whether you are more likely to enjoy being an expert in a narrow field, or prefer diverse activities. Clearly it’s better to match those long hours at work to your own personality and aptitudes. Education is clearly of great value; other than the obvious benefits, it may give each of us a more balanced, critical approach to the vast amounts of information assailing our brains nowadays.
Life away from work is pretty important too; some of us would see work/life balance as the crucial issue in staying happy. I know of some high achievers who have died young – there must be joy, to put it succinctly. Facing the huge challenge of climate change, reducing one’s own energy/pollution footprint is an important part of living ethically; so that when possible, setting up the conditions for a lifestyle that burns less fossil fuels seems a really worthwhile effort to make. Caring for the planet in other ways – eg preserving biodiversity – makes equal sense, not only for considerations of species and inter-generational equity, but with self-interest in mind too. The way one votes or chooses to be more active is not insignificant. I think that many in the Australian electorate regard politics as a sideshow, and less important than the main game – making money and shopping. We have a level of political illiteracy higher than say in Europe, with its long tradition of working class radicalism. Changing political leaders and parties is something you might do in response to an opinion poll or other insubstantial reason, without a lot of thought for the consequences. I couldn’t vote for a party that is beholden to noxious, destructive, exploitative corporations; nor one that entrenches wealth and privilege, or has an inhumane attitude to refugees fleeing terrible persecution. While all in favour of the individual pursuit of excellence, that shouldn’t be at the expense of community, so I support social equity and distributive justice. A party that favours generous overseas aid is a party that recognizes the roots of global terrorism, and sees how best to combat it. So that’s how to vote!! And maintaining health and fitness is important – without them it’s harder to enjoy life, as chronic illness is not just unpleasant but distracting and time-consuming.
I think that overseas travel adds much richness to life, and to understanding and respecting other cultures – particularly if you have grown up on an isolated British colonial enclave. It’s also heaps of fun, and even better if we can find ways of doing it without burning too much jet fuel. Having said that, we in this land are extremely fortunate in having a safe nest to fly home to: a well resourced nation with a civil society supported by the rule of law. So there are all sorts of reasons to live the good life. You don’t have to believe in some terrifying nemesis, to understand intuitively that ‘what goes around comes around’. You don’t need to believe in heaven or hell to have a conscience, or to understand retributive law. But above all else, ‘there should be joy’. A sense of humour helps a lot.