More than 2500 years ago the philosopher, Socrates, asserted that the unexamined life was not worth living. He predicted that we’ll be forever discontent if we don’t investigate, articulate and reconcile the struggle between the natural life force that we are with what the world wants us to do.
Until it is artificial intelligence that tells us what “it’s all about,” it is living breathing people who provide or have provided our information about the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.
Without such information, we are, in large part, reflexive entities, driven forward and set back by forces we can’t see and don’t understand. Without such information, we may live much of our lives at the behest of our biological immediacy and conditioned mindsets, neither of which we thoughtfully author or govern.
Thus situated, much of life just happens to us. As such, we may have been left without access to the cultivated and elevated joys of wonder, creativity, gratitude, humility and fulfillment which are significant pieces of an original and authentic life of our own design.
The initial force that drives us shows up in our immediacy, the living organism’s system of feelings and senses primed to keep it alive. But beyond this immediate force, we also acquire — via conformity, mimicry and timidity — dogged mindsets. Unexamined, such tenacious mindsets tend to be a box that limits our range of possibilities by limiting or depleting our emotional and intellectual resources.
However, if our lives are going to be worthwhile and original, that is, one of our own design, it is up to us to focus our efforts on the examined life beyond our certainties, beyond our reflexive, immediate selves and beyond what has circumscribed us up until now.
It is up to each of us to acquire (develop over time) the inventive independence to stand on the variability of our authoritative structure. And it is up to us to regulate our instinct-driven expediency with greater levels of significance.
Think about it. Isn’t there a real chance that we’ve reached adulthood without a carefully acquired philosophy of life? What would happen if we opened our minds and hearts to possibilities beyond dead metaphors and meaningless cliches about loss and disappointment, success and failure, and even good and bad? What would happen if we examined our experience, fears and desires in light of the entirety of our responsibility for our way of being in the world? Isn’t there a real chance that what could have been our unique promise was merely processed and focused on goals — images and acquisitions — that stand in for thinking for ourselves?
Building a life worth living is an art to be mastered, an art committed to excellence and virtue. They are regulative ideals for human performance. They summon courage and generosity in dialogue, in relationship and importantly, in solitude.
This is an art of both acceptance and change, self-discovery and self-creation, not to say antagonism and love. An art that recognizes human fallibility in making decisions, exercising judgment, taking action and predicting and evaluating consequences. An art that recognizes the incremental and repetitive effort it takes to rewire reflexive fears, superstitions and appetites that no longer resonate with the world in which we find ourselves. We might refer to this last as a remodel, a resolution of the conflicting beliefs, vanities, assumptions and prejudices we have (by nature) or were given (by culture).
Building a life worth living — an original life of our own design — though seemingly a birthright and its value inarguable, is an extraordinary personal achievement. And it is constructed piece by piece, artfully and strategically.
- It requires considerable intellectual integrity, sincerity, nerve and heartfulness.
- It takes courage and a deep generosity of feeling to carve out a decent and contributory life against much that is antagonistic and/or seemingly “fixed.”
- It takes the character that underpins authenticity, gravitas and the magnanimity that enlightens our perceptions and judgments.
- It requires our own intentional focus and our personal responsibility for our own oversight.
- It requires the originality and mobility of our thinking.
While it’s hard work at an imaginative, authentic and responsible level, every step of the process is fulfilling, the means to building an original life of our own design. In other words, there is reward to summoning the patience to examine our lives, to see where we’ve been thwarted by circumstance or mindset, to determine what is important to us and to make the decisions and calculations that shape the life we want to live. By reward, I mean it satisfies our aesthetic, emotional and ethical energies. The work includes not only what we’re responsible for and obligated to do, but also how we will give our nature, our passions, our hopes and our vision their due.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for 37 years. This coursework offers a philosophic perspective, vocabulary and strategies for acquiring a life of our own design. As an American Philosopher, this work stands firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity for not just living our life but for owning our life. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.