What are You Going to Do?

There is something feeble and a little contemptible about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting.
But he dares not face this thought!
Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed.

~ Bertrand Russell


Our time on Earth is short. We are nearing the end of our individual lives. We are nearing the end of American Empire (and see here). And we are nearing the end of human life on Earth as well. In response to this knowledge, as I’ve asked before, what are you going to do?

Regular readers know my general responses to this question, responses that focus on the pursuit of a life rich in purpose. I encourage the pursuits of love and excellence. I discourage attachment to the outcome of one’s actions. Perusing the many essays in this space will provide many details and examples (perusing probably doesn’t mean what you think it means, so feel free to look it up).

I observe a lot of people chasing what I believe are relatively shallow pursuits when they accept the finitude of life. Some of these people exhibit behaviors consistent with “signaling.” These behaviors include, for example, tasting a new variety of wine each night, having passports stamped in many countries, having sex with as many different people as possible, and generally adding variety to what bird-watchers would call “life lists.”

I’m a huge fan of traveling, particularly when it involves new cultural experiences. I encouraged students in my classrooms to seek such experiences via travel. As I pointed out often, one need not travel via airline to another country to witness a different culture from one’s own. Only a few miles from the campus in Tucson, Arizona where I spent most of my academic career were a few cultures markedly different than the ones usually experienced by my students. They’re found on lands called, “Indian reservations,” a two-word phrase with which I take issue with only two of the words: “Indian” and “reservation.”

In the 1980s, and likely during other times, “living large” meant hookers and blow. I’ve tried neither prostitutes nor cocaine, and I’m judgmental about neither your sex life nor your choice of drugs (including alcohol). However, I’ve long wondered if the pursuit of happiness is worthy. Perhaps a deeper satisfaction can be found by pursuing joy instead of happiness, an idea I’ve pondered previously. For example, I suspect — although I certainly cannot know, not for everyone — that William Blake’s “eternity in an hour” is more likely to be found in intimacy than in sex. Wine is fine, and introspection is often finer (full disclosure: I generally don’t like wine). Perhaps there’s more lasting meaning in the gratitude of a small, local life than in the hookers-and-blow version of “living large.”

I don’t know your circumstances. If they resemble mine, they change frequently. I recognize and appreciate the difficulty in seeking meaning, much less joy, when the pursuits of water, food, and shelter are constant preoccupations. Been there, done that, couldn’t even afford the tee-shirt.

I also know that valid insights contributing to meaning can spring from impoverishment. The Buddha and Ghandi come to mind. I’d mention contemporary figures were it not for concerns about privacy as well as the judgmental perception of hubris and humility.

Life is short. Life is difficult. We’ve all witnessed the feebleness described by British philosopher Bertrand Russell. Courage demands we act in accordance with reality. Although life is short and difficult, it is beautiful and often even worthy as well.

Pleasure is easily obtained, at least temporarily. Joy is difficult to capture. Perhaps that’s why some of us prefer joy.