It’s not an easy question, and perhaps one we spend most of our time avoiding. Oh, Twitter! Wait, let me check Facebook! Mmhmmm, email. Coffee. Now I’m tired. And so on. I say this from experience, not from my high perch. And then, occasionally, on a walk or a long subway ride, in the middle of a yoga class or in the middle of the night because I just can’t sleep, my wondering mind gets to thinking:
Why? Why are we here? Why am I doing any of this?
Do you have a life philosophy? A great goal, reason, vision or understanding so important that you’re willing to sacrifice other goals? Many writers today categorize this as your “passion,” your “purpose,” or your “legend,” often with the intention that you should know what it is soon and figure it out.
Personally, I find this stressful to consider: we don’t always know what we like, and sometimes we have to get really good at something before we find it satisfying; the paradox of passion is that often, in my experience, you have to grow it. It’s not something that you are necessarily born with (although many are born “playing the piano,” and other examples), sometimes you have to cultivate, curate, and discover what it is that makes you tick. It’s one of the reasons I find doing things so incredibly important; discovery, skill and mastery are as essential to happiness as many other things. One of the paradoxes of happiness (to paraphrase Gretchen Rubin) is that often what makes us happy doesn’t feel good in the moment.
The idea of happiness, and of a life philosophy, comes back to a central question, one that Mary Oliver asks well:
What will you do with your one wild and precious life?
This question is by no means a new question—a look back at the major philosophers of the 5th and 6th centuries and even at the idea of philosophy itself reminds us that people have been asking these questions for generations. We are not alone in the universe in these speculations. In fact, I often wonder if we are behind, because rather than rigorously reviewing the texts of our forefathers, I’m spending time tittering and checking my dopamine hits, head down, in a rush, glued to my various phone devices.
Are these internet explosions good for us or just filling time? I hope it’s not the latter, but as I personally push myself towards more difficult writing, I wonder if what I’m writing is useful, or just another chatter in the conversation.
William B. Irvine, in a book I’ve recently picked up, *A Guide To The Good Life*, begins his writings on Stoicism and the history of philosophy by asking:
What do you want out of life?
What do you want out of life? Do you know?
When you ponder this answer, do you consider things or lists (such as a spouse, a family, a good job, money)? Do you want to make a difference? Do you want to leave a legacy? What is your dream? Or are you bothered by the idea that you should have some life philosophy and you don’t really know what it looks like, feels like or sounds like?
A lot of people have trouble answering this question. We aren’t posed the question that often—imagine if, in an interview a person paused and said:
Dear son, what do you believe to be the purpose of your life?
We’re not necessarily a culture designed to stop and think about these questions or spend afternoons wandering together musing over these difficult and long-term perspectives. We are, as Irvine writes, provided with “an endless stream of distractions” so we “won’t ever have to” think about our “grand goal in living.”
And I tweeted about this recently: If you get to age 90 and look back, what will you be happy about? What will you be glad you did?
Early schools of philosophy and a stab at our current cultural dreams:
The early schools of philosophy were developed around specific ideas and beliefs about what one should (and shouldn’t) do and become in their lifetimes. The study and creation of a philosophy of life isn’t crafted in a single day or conversation: it’s something you work towards, specifically, over time; for many Greeks and Romans, they hired tutors and enrolled in studies in order to develop and adopt a philosophy of life.
Today, we craft smaller philosophical stories by attaching ourselves to various crafts—Yoga, for example, is a philosophy and a practice; education is a practice and a routine; a job and the daily grind, for many, becomes our routine.
Yet as I muse—and as I make more time and space to muse, deliberately un-scheduling myself from the epic chase towards “more work!” that I’ve designed my life around for many years—I wonder.
I wonder if our national philosophy is a bit awry. Or, better yet: do we have a national philosophy? I think there is a bigger story in our national culture: perhaps we’re a nation craving a philosophy. Craving a way of living, and leaders to teach us how to live.
On top of this, I think that many of the structures and institutions that we’ve previously trusted to help us “lead the good life” are failing us. We’ve adopted and ascribe to several paradigms that we unknowingly buy into, or mindlessly follow, and then when we realize—ten, twenty, thirty years later—that these particular life paths haven’t left us any more satisfied or well-off, we wonder what went wrong.
Are we building our lives on corrupt philosophies?
Here’s a quick and dirty sketch of some of the assumptions underpinning much of (Western) American life. At this point it’s worth turning the question over to you: Do you identify with any of the following assumptions? Are these cultural norms that you believe in? Or perhaps is it time to stop and consider—Do you really want these things? Are these part of your philosophy of life?
A few commonplace philosophies for those who haven’t thought of one yet.
The following list is a sketch of some commonly-held life philosophies in our culture. Do you subscribe to these? Do they work for you?
- Get a spouse. We’re a nation and a culture that prioritizes couples over single-dom, and the way that this relationship looks has a very particular mainstream look; we’re inundated with stereotypical relationship stories and messages, much of which look nothing like the beautiful couples I see living life outside of the radar. While I don’t disagree that human connection is one of the most important pieces of living; I wonder if this is the only way that human connectivity looks like. What does it really mean to connect, to relate? How do we do this? Have we all fallen under the massive media spell?
- Have a family. Our overwhelming biological urges will tell us to make kids. It’s how our species survives. Yet in every single generation, there are many, many individuals who do not reproduce, and the complex entanglement of genetic evolution doesn’t mean that these individuals get wiped out (for there are thousands and thousands of traits that are elected for or against). Not everyone has families; yet so many of us, perhaps unknowingly, subscribe to the belief that our life story will involve kids at some point in our twenties or thirties (or later). I’m not suggesting that this is false; I’m just wondering if you’ve ever thought about the fact that this is something that you truly want—or is it something you’re going to do because it’s what is done?
- Get a job. The economy moves. We get jobs. We graduate high school, go to college, get a job, pay the bills. In general, I buy in: we exchange value in many iterations and forms; much of that is through monetary exchange for work done and work needed.
- Buy a car. We have all sorts of language about how you “need” a car and how a car is your first “investment.” I’ve tried to understand for more than ten years now why throwing $25,000 (and another $25,000 in expenses) towards moving yourself is better than a few bucks for a bus or using your own legs and a bicycle. Are we that bad at organizing space (and ourselves) so we must buy cars? Is this efficient, sustainable, or even free? (One argues that having a car equates to freedom; traffic, debt, and fuel discharges make me wonder.) Is this your life philosophy?
- Figure out your career. What if we don’t have to figure it out? What if we can just exist, wandering from interest to interest? What if we want to do three hundred things? What if I want to have seventy projects, four careers, and move from place to place and city to city, because that’s more in line with what I want than anything else?
- Go to college. I think college is still more beneficial than destructive, so I support it, but I’m curious if this is your philosophy. I also wonder if there are alternatives not yet considered or created (and so many recently are blooming like crazy: Khan Academy, Udemy, Skillshare, General Assembly, among others)
Education, generally. I believe in education, in learning, in the acquisition of skills and talents and the expansion of your brain. What I wonder is whether or not the current system of education is the philosophy that you ascribe to. Or, could it look like a wandering-free nomad, eating across the world, learning food? Or studying physicality and movement? Or teaching your children at home, or en route?
Just because the world offers something one way, does not mean that this is the way it must be done.
- Buy a house. I watch all of my peers—and parents, and friends, and colleagues—buy houses and get swallowed in debt payments and buried beneath the weight of the money they have promised someone else. What does it mean to live, on this planet, on the earth? Do you need a home? Why? What does home look like? For me, “what is home?” is a bigger question and study of mine, and I’m not sure of the answer yet. Is it smells? Particular belongings? People? Familiar spaces? Books? Minds? I’m not sure. I’m also not sure it’s a 4-wall, physical erection on land bought with dollars promised from my future.
These are just the start to the blend of life philosophies that you may have inadvertently adopted. I’m not judging and saying any of these is WRONG. I’m just saying they might not all be for YOU. They might fit perfectly fine, and you may love having a car, a house, an education, and a family. As long as it is what you want: all the better.
I live my life (this “online-offline” blend) awash in counter-culture and a proliferation of bloggers and writers that preach the “unconventional” lifestyle; I also inhabit what I think is one of the greatest cities in the world; and I realize as I travel, write, and challenge these assumptions that a lot of people aren’t hearing this message yet. That the following is all optional, if you’re creative about it:
- You don’t have to spend a lot of money.
- You don’t have to go to college.
- You don’t have to get a job (a traditional job).
- You don’t need a resume.
- You don’t have to buy a house.
- You don’t have to get married.
- You don’t have to be in a relationship.
These are a whole kit of parts that one might mistake as a philosophy of life, but the greater question is,
Does doing these things add up to what I want my life to look like?
Does this help me develop a philosophy of living? Will this help me live a good life? (Not HAVE a good life, note the subtle difference?)
There’s a lot of fear associated with giving up things, but often we find that the relationship of things-to-happiness is not what we assume it will be. What’s your philosophy? What are your actions? Are they adding up? Are you happy?
You don’t need to figure out your philosophy by the end of this blog essay; in fact, it may take you years to figure out. The greatest philosophers spent time and energy discovering how and what to do, and how to live. In any of these efforts, however, is the question you might consider answering:
What will you do with your life,