A Life Well Lived

Freshman year college, Introduction to Philosophy final. This question: What is a life well lived? I don’t think I have ever doodled quite so much in task avoidance of an exam: smiley faces, question marks, asterisks between points and counterpoints. My planning sheet looked like a football scrimmage diagram that had been created by drunken acrobats. Once I scribbled over the unnecessary parts, I was ready to write. The challenge: turning one remaining sentence into a 2,000 word essay. I quoted my Aristotle, celebrated Socrates, and pondered how thoroughly entrenched in freshly rendered manure I had become. I turned it in without editing. It was, I felt at the time, the best I could do. Actually reading what I had written would have been an acknowledgement that I had no clue what I was writing.

Over 25 years later while in the midst of the household junk dumping that nicer people would call spring cleaning, I discovered my college essays in the catch-all closet. I read through my papers and came across the philosophy final. I laughed when I realized I believe the same answer to the question now that I did when I was 18. Either this is evidence that I have been stunted in wisdom since late adolescence, or that my closely held definition of a life well lived had come to fruition during the course of my life thus far.

It’s far too simplistic to argue that having natural beauty, or money, or intelligence help people live their lives more easily. There’s a galaxy of difference between living life easily and living it well anyway. I understand that some people want glory, some want to be acknowledged as the best category of their choice, some want to be remembered in history, and some want to make it through the day. I couldn’t possibly place a value on someone else’s quest for a good life because I’d be evaluating their life based on my own belief set. That’s not usually a recipe for understanding.

In my quest to live life well, I’ve had to reevaluate the types of jobs I can do and the contribution I can make to my larger community. I have learned that the only thing that keeps me getting up and at ‘em every day is my trust in the process. I worry about people who don’t make mistakes, probably because I make so many myself. Without mistakes, I’m not sure I would have ended up with a job I adore and friends/family who make every day much more significant (both good and not-so-good).

About 15 years ago, I went to a seminar about life planning for children with special needs. The speaker was brilliant. She presented the five essential questions that all people must answer:

  1. What will you do for money?
  2. Where will you live/what type of housing?
  3. What will you do for fun?
  4. How will you give back to your community?
  5. What help do you need to reach your goals?

These are essentially the same questions that I ask myself regularly. These relate to the answer on my philosophy final. I didn’t even know at the time that I was making some kind of sense to myself; I thought I was just writing an essay for class. Funny how our assignments sometimes turn out to have meaning after all. My answer is pretty simple: A life well lived is one that gives meaning to the person without harming others, kind of a Hippocratic Oath of living as part of the world.


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