If living well is possible in this world, and I believe unabashedly that it can be approximated, it will involve committing ourselves in a way that will create challenges.
Note that I began with living well. Such a beginning presupposes knowledge, and such knowledge, or its discovery, is not here the point. My interest is in what follows. What follows is conformity, adaptation which is at the same time a construction or creation. To live well is to do something. To become someone who lives well is to change, to grow, and it is to grow in doing well what one is doing.
There are degrees of conformity. First, there is the intellectual assent. Even intellectual assent has degrees, but let us treat it now as a something. In intellectual assent to living well, at the beginning of conformity, is the recognition of what is not. There is the way I am currently, now, living, and some way that is better. Had we time we would distinguish between the end and the means, but for now suffice it to say that they are distinct, there are mistakes I can make in either category, and it pays to, in either case, distinguish between appearance and reality. What is the real good, and what is the real way?
Second, there is the command of the will. It is here that there is real beginning in some sense. Ontologically one can recognize the deep value of the vision of the good (intellectual) while acknowledging that there is often a dreaminess and a flightiness that accompanies it. To command is to change the world. To command is to move. It is here that trouble starts, and it is worth noting the trouble. It has many faces, and trouble lacks an essence (as does any evil), but there is a family resemblance to what happens at this stage of conformity.
We have progressed, without acknowledging it, from a present position that has been judged to be not-as-good-as-it-could-be. There are many degrees here. We will skip them except to say that the greater the distance between the way things are and the way they could be the greater the risk of trouble. It is time to speak of feeling. I will use the traditional term passion. One suffers passion. It is not a matter of choice. Try choosing in-the-moment happiness in a moment worthy of sadness. But one of the secrets to moving closer to living well is discovering that while passion is not immediately under the control of will, it is under an indirect control. Passion is a natural follower. But it will not tell you this itself.
We should have gratitude for passion. It is an expression and so a communication of our current aim or directedness. It is at best informational. The information provided is deeply integrated into our desire and aversion. Given that the moment we are reflecting on is a moment of change, it is often, if not necessarily, a moment of resistance to passion. Of course we should not be overly-simplistic. There is the passion of adventure and hope that accompany youth and new beginnings. But those of us who have spent some time on this old clod know well how fleeting such a moment is. What one encounters after the honeymoon is the will moving living in a direction that is not aligned with one’s most deeply integrated directedness. It feels unnatural. Watch out! Beware! How should we respond to such a moment? I hope to address this in a later post. For now I simply want to note the trouble. It comes early, and it pays to be ready. How many, embarking on the project of living well, have at some point, out of mistaken expectation, turned away out of the disorientation and frustration of not feeling well?
But on, and let us note another trouble. If we are able to overcome the early beginning to living well, what confronts us next? The initial rage of unfed passion has been silenced by the necessary starvation of those untamed desires, and now we have fed living well enough so that she begins to grow. The metaphor with parenting can be continued, and usefully captures the next notable hurdle. What does a parent deal with who spends time with a young, needy, immature but growing and developing child, especially one that needs training and practice? How do we acquire training and practice? Repetition. And repetition means the same. And the same risks boredom. And boredom stimulates restlessness, and restlessness leads to looking elsewhere for satisfaction away from the very thing that needs to be done.
Every individual who has ever trained for anything can confirm what is required for development down here: choice, labor, and repetition. And let us note what I think is a common experience. One is aiming at something that one is not. There is a real sense in which one is dying to self in order to become. The new me, who is closer to living well, was born out of the death of the old one. But what is experienced is a kind of Groundhog Day (Bill Murray) on the football field, at the piano, with the mathematical rules, or with living well. It requires a kind of dogged determination to look past the passion of boredom and restlessness and stay on what one intellectually knows to be good.
So, let us move now to the beginning of the end: growth and approximation to living well. The real growth is a change in us, not outside of us. If we are old enough to have striven to live well we know that it is not all trouble. If we are young and have not yet striven we will have to first take testimony, and that testimony is best from relations of trust. Trust cannot be found here. If we want proof,then take any difficult task, aim at it, repeat, and make sure to repeat for long enough to both experience the rage of doing something hated (not due to its intrinsic evil but due to its contrariness to current passion), and then continue through with repetition it is merely boring. But we should allow the boredom to fester until it transforms into real restless resistance. Then, do this: stay on course. Then, check for progress. Are we different now, then we were before? Have the deposits of repetition not invariably payed dividends?
There is a moral law in the universe. It is invisible, but unassailable. The worldly sphere only approximates it but the moral sphere is ruled by it unforgivingly. He who does not work does not eat. Merit does not always rule in this world. Some who do not work eat, and some who work do not. Take the depositing $50 in the bank for 50 years. Neglecting the difficulties of compound interest which are worth consideration we are left with $30,000. Then, the bank fails. This is not how things go in the moral sphere. We deposit consistently and repetitiously into the art of living well, and we will find that only we can fail. It is worth doing what we can to live well in so far as it is within our control. By doing what we can, and improving our approximation to living well, we increase our own ability to make the part of the world that we are living in for ourselves and for others near us, better no matter how bad it gets.
Living well is mostly about what we can control (what else could it be about?). Happiness (Aristotle’s name for living well), and this is the third moment, is mostly virtue. Virtue is the internal changes in our deepest directedness and aim that is the product of repetitious choice. The way we feel today is not anything but information for us about our current directedness. Feeling will follow choice. Initially it does not feel good to become virtuous. But see if we can determine how to identify virtue, identify it in the virtuous individual, and ask what the difference is in that individual’s life for having it.
Here we are now. Now is for choosing. If not choosing what to do, then choosing to create the vision. If having created the vision, then now is the time for moving towards it. If at the beginning revolt of passion, now is the time for staying the course. If in the middle of boredom and restlessness, now is the time for staying the course. If finally seeing the deposits converted into reward (virtue), now is the time to stay the course.
No one ever promised me any time frame for the transitions from one stage to another. The best I have learned as a measuring tool, and it is at best approximate, is to ask how many choices I made in the opposite direction in order to strengthen passion in that direction? Am I frustrated with envy, anger, lust, or fear? Will it not go away? First, it will. Second, what was the size of the deposit I originally invested in the vice? How large is the monster I have created through my feeding? Does it not seem at least worth allowing as much energy in the opposite direction as I invested originally? At least. Finally, do I believe that I am able to defeat such a monster, and even if I do not believe, am I not willing to will anyway. This is faith. Acting in spite of intellectual doubt and passionate fear is the beginning of living well.