The Good Life Closes Out Bad Possibilities

Far from having a “bucket list”, I now understand that the proper conduct of the second half of life is to approach something like what the Tibetan Buddhists call tukdam, to do less and less, but only to sit and meditate, and to breathe once every century or so, so that by the time you actually die there will be scarcely any change to register. I can picture a future not so far from now when, to the question, “Is he alive or dead?”, the only fitting response will be: “Who can say?” …

…Alcohol is surprisingly similar to salt in this regard: it is easy to see how it can help to keep us alive, when times are hard, even if it helps to kill us when times are easy (or hard, but in another way)…

…You keep pushing nature to give you more of what it has, in higher doses, and eventually it breaks, and gives you something with a causal history rooted in the thing you started with and the thing you wanted more of, but with an opposite and hostile nature….

…To put this another way, I no longer see the world as frothing with possibility, as “open”. That’s what it is, I think, to survive past midlife: your life is not done, yet it is, as we say, “a done deal”.

Can it still, under such circumstances, hold out the hope of being “good”? Hell yes, life is good. It’s a gift, it’s a miracle, &c. And it is surely a blessing to live long enough to learn to stop searching in vain for sources of transcendence in the common substances of this world, however rarefied they are made, however spirit-like, by the long art of men.”

-Justin E. H. Sith , “Gone Bad, Come to Life: On Fermentation, Distillation, and Sobriety.” November 27, 2022.

Excellent throughout.

Simulacrum for New Selves

There’s a blog post that describes Tom Bihn’s iterative design process. He talks about how he starts with an idea, but it is always with the notion that the first idea is never your best one. It has to be reality tested. He draws some sketches, does a mock-up, puts the dimensions into 2D modeling software, works on prototype halves, then he stuffs the bag with something and considers it over time. When the design is close to how he wants it, he shows it to other designers. He refines the design. After, he works on how best to consistently produce the product and the considerations that factor in beyond design. In the end, you have a great product.

Clearly, this iterative process is a good one for making products. It got me thinking would it work in other area, like in designing a life? What does it mean to design a life?

Like Tom, we have to have a vision of what makes for a good life. There’s no good answer to that question that works for everyone. As with bags, people have a wide variety of tastes. Standard aspirations tend to fall in line with either being wealthy, famous and/or powerful. In spiritual traditions, they tend to focus on how being poor, unknown and powerless can be fuel for spiritual development. But, it is also generally acknowledged that having too little of each makes it difficult to spiritually progress.

So, perhaps the good life is finding the balance, where we have enough money, recognition and ability to influence the world around us that we aren’t oppressed by our circumstances. At the same time, having too much of these things tends to be oppressive in a different way, forcing us to act counter to our interests or even of the interests of others. If you are a leader of a country, the role of leader leaves little room for anything else.

And, I think this points to something important. In order to change, we need to have the space to assume different roles, to try on different identities or practices.

To pick a trivial example, in some countries and in some historical periods, a mid-afternoon nap during the hottest part of the day or just as a cultural practice was common. However, in modern industrial society, where work is ruled by the clock, there is often no concept of a mid-day nap. You have a lunch or dinner break. You don’t have a siesta.

But, perhaps our lives would be significantly improved with a mid-day nap. Perhaps the timing of the nap, say sometime between 5 hours after we woke up from sleeping at night to sometime ending five hours before. What happens when naps are earlier or later in the cycle? How many of us have done any experimentation to figure out what works best for us?

The answer is that most of us are sleep-deprived because we prioritize other aspects of our lives over sleeping. We need to pick up the kids from school, go to school ourselves, go to two jobs with little time for anything else, or worse.

You could follow the same pattern for any activity you like: exercise, reading, cultivating our “third place“, meeting people and making friends, and on and on and on. Do we put the same kind of care into imagining our lives that Tom Nihn puts into imagining his bags? Imagine what kind of life you could live if you did.

And What Do You Do? I Live Here.

“A monk walking through the woods came across a couple strolling and answered their greetings. ‘And what do you do?’ the woman asked. The monk replied, ‘I don’t do anything. I live here.” She insisted. So did he. She thought of life in terms of what one does for a living, but the monk did not. He insisted that he did nothing, he only lived here. She was vexed…

…Is a person only a machine to make money? Is being a parent, a spouse, summed up in what a person does for a living? Is it how much you bring home that makes you what you are? If it is, many a wife and mother has little value, for in terms of economics she may be more like us monks, performing useful and necessary tasks and services. But there is no money in any of it…

…For granted having no income, no job, is a most dreadful worry, it is not the end of everything. Not the loss of humanity, identity, personhood. For trial, trouble, sickness and affliction and death are with us today as they were yesterday and they will be tomorrow. Characteristic of life anywhere. Any time. Only in some times more than others.”

-Matthew Kelty, “Every Reason to Be Merry,” in The Call of Wild Geese: More Sermons in a Monastery. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publicans, 1996.

Upon re-reading The Call of Wild Geese, this passage felt especially relevant in the middle of a pandemic. Who are we if we cannot go into the office? If we are not earning an income? If we are isolating and socializing through screens? Do we have value apart from this life we have constructed? Obviously, we do. The question is: why is this even a question? The answer is that our culture is busy reducing people into categories: type of job, ethicity, religious belief, down the line. None of these things is who any of us are. Yet, the provide a shortcut, just enough to process and move on with our lives and ideas, let’s not have too much disruption please.