Five Suggestions for Living Well

Five Suggestions for Living Well
(After Nearly Dying)

Socrates once said that ethics is a matter of learning how to live well. He also learned how to die as well as might be possible by holding himself responsible for his behavior, something that leaves many people today speechless during times when no one accepts responsibility for their worst actions. The truth is that learning how to die is the best way to learn how to live, a seeming paradoxical piece of wisdom I have found works in terms of my own life. Death grabs my mind and heart and forces them to focus on what matters most—what we invest our lives on given time’s deadline.

These days we don’t have commandments, even ten, because we rebel against anyone telling us anything, even to wear our seat belts when driving a car or helmets when on motorcycles. We live in times when the new golden rule is doing unto others before they do unto us, thus taking care of ourselves while neglecting others. The best I can do, then, is offer five, hard won suggestions for how to live better as individuals and in groups. My suggestions came after laying flat on a bed in the intensive care rooms of a hospital, having gone in for “minor surgery” and ending up in septic emergency. Sorry, I did not have a near death experience. But I had something better—a week of looking at the bright lights overhead without my cell phone or laptop and reflecting on my life.

Socrates reportedly said through his interpreter Plato that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I took that advice seriously and examined my life like I had never really done before while in that hospital recovery room. And I can honestly say that through this experience I have learned a few things. What I learned was also reinforced when after a number of biopsies searching for cancer, I understood that to live well requires the inner realization that one’s life is indeed limited. No cancer was discovered, but my lesson was that living in six month cycles between biopsies taught me to focus on what is most important and to do so in short intervals, not putting off tomorrow what could be done today.

So here are the five suggestions for living well. Take them or leave them, but unless you have spent a week in an intensive care room (sometimes I think we all do this just by being alive), ignore them at your own risk—or go off to some rustic cabin in the woods and like Thoreau decide what it is you value most so as not to live a life of quiet desperation.

1. Keep it simple (it will get complex all by itself).
2. Know yourself (many conspire to take this away from you).
3. Be kind to yourself and others (somebody has to).
4. Seemingly small things matter most (there are no small things).
5. Take care of your soul (even if you don’t believe you have one).

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Filed under Living an dying, Philosophy and Ethics, Self care, Spirituality, wisdom

One Blog Deserves Another

A blog I wrote to respond to my brother’s blog today:

A wise teacher (James Luther Adams) of mine in Boston wrote and said that there were no “last words,” only “latest words.” A good piece of advice.
I have learned not to take notes or force myself to write sixty words a day (I feel like a factory worker who turns out words and not cabinets), but to write in spurts. To use an old bromide: “Different strokes for different folks.” I do write a blog or column every few days to keep my brain alive. Of course, being a teacher always involves writing, though in modern classrooms, unlike mine, it’s more about producing a video.
My new spurt comes after Saturday when I have seven weeks before I teach again and have four projects in mind. Two are finishing jobs, so not long; one is a short book I have always put off, and the last is a novel I started and realized yesterday is actually a long short story. If I contemplate a long book, I get weary and don’t stay with it. If I focus on one project at a time and don’t think about the end first, I might actually turn something out. Like I advise my students: Don’t try to swallow an eight hundred pound marsh mellow all at once; take a little bite at a time and who knows, you might eventually get there. In any case, even if you could eat the big marsh mellow at one time, you’d either be in the hospital emergency room or throwing up all over the laptop on which you planned to write the next great novel.
Now, see, in a few short moments, in responding to your blog, I have written mine for the day. What’s a brother for, anyway, but to offer suggestions how to improve yourself? (By the way, where in our family did this writing bug come from? I used to think it was from our father, the preacher; but as I have grown older, I think it was our mother, the frustrated actress, who told stories and gave dramatic readings. So listening, not necessarily reading, the spoken word, was the inspiration. Wish she were still alive to thank. Hey, maybe the next short book will be for her. I owe her that much).

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Live well and flourish

It’s a strange and beautiful world–and dangerous.

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I am thinking of all the tragic world news lately. Actually I am inundated with all the bad news and need to turn off the television and just sit quietly. The words of the poet Wordsworth come through the silence: “The world is too much with us….We lay waste our powers….For this, for everything we are out of tune.”

When I was young I thought I could write the next great novel as well as save the world. I’ve done neither. And now that I am older, I know the youthful goals were good but very unrealistic, even self-defeating. I would have done better to remember the wisdom of Mother Teresa: “If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way.” I would only add that there are no small things if done in a great way. Every act of compassion means something to the one for whom compassion is shown, whether toward one’s self or others.

There are days I wonder if the human race will survive. Denying climate change we continue to destroy the planet on which we depend. Waging war to make peace we think, the landscape is full of the losses. Making money rather than sharing with others, we drain the earth of resources and fill the world with more hungry children.

When I was a journalist I used to go home at night and feel the need for a shower to rinse all the bad news off. Maybe that’s why I kept a slogan above my desk: “Today’s news is tomorrow’s kitty litter.”

You can become that to which you give your attention, whether its bad news, money, sex, or power. But here’s the good news: you can change that to which you pay attention, and you can do small acts to make things better in your corner of the world. Ethics, as Aristotle noted long ago, is what you do with your life, not what you say you will do. Excellence is a matter of habit, which you can practice day after day until your life is in tune with what you say you value. This is called integrity, and it seems in short supply these days.

It’s easy to lose hope these days, but that’s no way to live well (to live well, wrote Aristotle, is the purpose for living, and the title of this blog, Arete, which means roughly translated to flourish). Maybe this why I say to myself and students: “Live well and flourish.” That’s why I am here and what I hope for every person.

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Extend and Verify Voting Rights

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There seems to be a rather confusing debate raging in this country about voting rights. There are some who say every vote needs to be verified. There are others who say everyone should have the opportunity to vote. I think the confusion comes from viewing voting rights as an either/or issue rather than both/and.

Few of us, myself included, would argue that we don’t need to make sure every vote is from the person voting. And, few of us would argue that extending voting rights should be a national priority in a country with such poor voter turnouts.

The issues that arise seem more confused by those who claim they want to make sure every vote is legitimate but end up restricting voting when there are few voter frauds in any state. They are offering a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist, even while the concept seems fair–making sure the person voting is actually the registered voter.

For someone like myself who supports the extension of voting rights in this country and who went South long ago to stand with those who had been denied those rights because of their race–and who also supports the need to make sure every voter is properly registered, I don’t see why we can’t see that both concerns are ethically and politically good for our democracy–extend the right to vote and make sure every vote is legitimate. Surely in a somewhat technologically advanced country such as ours we can figure out how to extend voting by having more than one day on which to vote, more online voting, more hours in which to vote, etc. At the same time, surely we can find ways to certify who is voting and provide persons with a card that will not require them to travel to a distant office to register.

I remember Ronald Reagan negotiating an arms deal with the Soviets and selling it by saying his motto was “trust and verify.” Surely we can do the same for the most basic of all rights: the right to vote. A vote is a terrible thing to lose.

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Filed under Ethics, Political philosophy

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

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(Photo by Cynthia Brink)

A picture is worth a thousand words (more or less).

This one haunts me since I saw it a day ago. It evokes deep and often personal meaning. Mine might not be the same as yours, but I suspect there are also some common themes we share. Use your imagination.

And, for once, I will let the photo rest and continue to haunt me. Maybe when I can find the words to express what I see and feel, I will get back to writing, if not a thousand words maybe a poem. But I suspect there are many levels of meaning here, some universal and others personal. Once upon a time a publisher took a quote of mine from one of my books and turned it into a book mark: “The truly personal may also be the truly universal.”

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Filed under Living an dying, Nature, Philosophy for Beginners, Poetry, seasons, Time, wisdom, Writers

My Favorite Garden Path

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I suppose I could name the pathway outside the old farmhouse in Northern Wales. But it wasn’t really a garden path, but like a journey through an imaginary forest to a walk to the river and past the remains of an old stone chapel. I return to that pathway in my mind’s eye from time to time when I need to feel the world slowing down and hear the sounds of the river. But it is not my favorite garden path.

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Perhaps this pathway is a better one, this leading across the college campus where I teach. But it is not my pathway even though I have crossed it many times, first as a student and now as a teacher. It’s familiar but not mine.

My favorite garden path, like most of what is really important for me, is a few steps away, outside my back door. I have searched for truth in many places and times, but only lately discovered the truth was as close as my breath or the garden outside.

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I know this pathway well. I have walked it quietly in the morning light, passing the statues of Buddha and Saint Francis. I have sat there in the morning sunlight welcoming a new day and in the evening as the dwindling sun signals the end of light. I have planted seeds and watched them mature, gifts from the earth back to me.

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And so today I pause for a minute of silence to give thanks for the garden pathway outside my back door, this sanctuary there before I was, in which I witness the miracle of life.

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Hope

The awards given to two human rights activists are signs of hope in a world that sometimes seems full of hopelessness. One, a Hindu and citizen of India, works to free children from inhumane workplace environments. The other, a citizen of Pakistan and follower of Islam, struggles to encourage and support young women to continue their educations.

In times of religious bigotry and political authoritarianism, it’s important to hold them up and however we can follow their examples, not just in other countries but our own.

It does matter what you believe and what you do with those beliefs. Judge others by what they say and do. Some will alleviate suffering, others add to it. Some will reach out to those excluded and include them; others will exclude others because of their religious or political views. Some will sow love, others hate. It’s not rocket science.

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Filed under Hope, Human rights, Justice, Philosophy and Ethics, wisdom