Paul P. Mealing

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Monday, 12 May 2014

How should I live?

This is the 'Question of the Month' in the latest issue of Philosophy Now (Issue 101, March/April 2014). Submissions need to be 400 words or less, so mine is 400 words exactly (refer below).

How should I live?

How I should live and how I do live are not necessarily the same, but having aspirations and trying to live up to them is a good starting point. So the following is how I aspire to live, which I don’t always achieve in practice.

The most important point is that no one lives in isolation. The fact that we all, not only speak in a language, but also think in a language, illustrates how significantly dependent we are on our milieu. What’s more, from our earliest cognitive experiences to the remainder of our lives, we interact with others, and the quality of our lives is largely dependent on that interaction.

Everyone seeks happiness and in modern Western societies this universal goal is taken for granted. But how to achieve it? A tendency to narcissism, tacitly encouraged by the relatively recent innovation of social media, can lead to self-obsession, which we are particularly prone to in our youth. Socrates famously said (or so we believe): ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But a thoughtful analysis of that coda, when applied to one’s own life, reveals that we only examine our lives when we fail. The corollary to this is that a life without failure is a life not worth living. And this is how wisdom evolves over a life’s experiences: not through success or study but through dealing with life’s trials and tribulations. This is reflected in virtually every story that’s been told: how the protagonist deals with adversity, be it physical or psychological or both. And this is why storytelling is universally appealing.

So how should I live my life? By being the opposite to narcissistic and self-obsessed. By realising that every interaction in my life is an opportunity to make my life more rewarding by making someone else’s life more rewarding. In any relationship, familial, work-related, contractual or whatever, either both parties are satisfied or both are dissatisfied. It is very rare that someone achieves happiness at someone else’s expense, unless they are competing in a sporting event or partaking in a reality TV show.

There is an old Chinese saying, possibly Confucian in origin: If you want to know the true worth of a person, observe the effects they have on other people's lives. A true leader knows that their leadership is not about their personal achievements: it’s about enabling others to realise their own achievements.

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