By Candice Louisa Daquin
A life well-lived tends to be interpreted by cultural needs. In China, maybe it is portrayed as the accumulation of wealth and taking care of ones’ family; in Africa it may be about survival, integrity, and hard work; in Italy, possibly about how many friends you have, how often you laugh, if you feed stray animals. No one country shares a defined concept of what a well-lived life looks like, but as we are more homogenized than ever before we’re all cross-influenced by other cultures.
The other day I was watching a travel documentary about The Silk Road. The idea of so many foreign countries we’ve never visited, nor know very much about, can be incredibly humbling. We talk in international terms; we talk as if we alone have the right to proclaim for the rest of the world. Even the most avid traveler hasn’t been steeped in a culture long enough to make those assumptions, nor have they visited every shore, every mountain, every tribe. As that is impossible, no one culture or group should claim to speak for what is a universal truth, there is no such thing. How can meaning being separated from being human, thus subjective?
Growing up I was deeply influenced by my mother. She didn’t live with me, but she wrote me letters from all parts of the globe she visited with amazing letterheads and stamps. Eventually this became more than an expensive hobby, she opened a travel company that published newsletters and books on high end travel. In my teen years, I might not have appreciated what she did from afar because I felt ‘high end’ was exclusionary, and it is. But despite this, I have grown to respect what my mom did, because it wasn’t for a living, it was for passion, and in this, I felt she has always lived her life to the full.
True, who wouldn’t like traveling for a living? In high end hotels? Isn’t she just another example of privilege? But she wasn’t. She created this from scratch, having left a highly successful career in media that she attained on her own merit. I think if it were not for my mom, I would not understand how far people can go if they are determined and hard working. It’s definitely why I work hard. However, my own journey has been vastly different. I found it challenging enough at times, to get through life, let alone to thrive. I recall my mom saying love what you do, feel passion in what you do! I felt I was missing a magical ingredient.
Eventually, health issues seemed to close that door to a passion-driven dimension, and I began to be more pragmatic. My thoughts were more along the lines of: how can I support myself and ensure I will have enough to survive? What can I do to overcome or compensate for my shortcomings in health? I lost the advantage of just being able to dream, because I had to survive, and sometimes for many of us, we simply don’t have the luxury to dream. That led me to understand, a life worth living is necessarily subjective. Unequal life chances versus individual effort play a bigger role in the outcome.
Even so, the question of what a well lived life looks like, is one worthy of examination. In the world there are women who are essentially still indentured to their husbands. There are castes and groups who will never be able to rise above other castes and groups because of their birth. There are those so poor they couldn’t attend school if they wanted to. I think of how the girls of Afghanistan will fare with the UK and US leaving and the Taliban gaining their former foothold. Will girls be safe? It doesn’t seem likely nor permitted their former right to education. I envision a similar outcome to what happened to women in Iran. And then there are the fabulously wealthy and the comfortable middle class. We simply don’t all have the same access to a well-lived life to begin with!
Within all these groups lie many variables, not least, our physical and mental state, our chosen career(s), where we live and how expensive it is to survive there. Then there’s just the fickleness of luck, who gets to live, who does not. To boldly state a life worth living is any one of these options, belies the truth of our differences. A child born with HIV may have a different life than one born healthy; a child born blind might have different outcomes than a child born with athletic prowess. Even then, one advantage may be nothing, we may need more advantages. To proclaim as self-help books and life coaches do, that there is one way, seems redundant and missing out on the diversity of our experiences. You can do everything right and still not succeed.
We get older and we think back and wonder, did I make the right choices, was this the direction I intended? Am I satisfied or disappointed? When we’re very young, these considerations are rarely as important, as such we simply experience. Maybe in youthful hedonism, we miss the very moment we should be thinking of the future. Some cultures do a better job of forcing their young to consider the future, such as Germany, who asks the very young to pick a career before they are even in their teens, to help mold an often vocational direction rather than leaving them to decide many years later when it could be too late?
For example, if you had a child, would you wish for the child to take philosophy or neuroscience in university? Which would be more likely to land them a secure job? This surely is part of our role as parents, to ensure our children will be financially safe when growing up. At the same time, we know the potential value of philosophy, but how translatable is that value in today’s world?
I grew up very aspirant-minded because my mom was very successful. Even as I didn’t live with her, I saw her as a role model and believed naively I could follow in her footsteps. There were many reasons I did not. The locations and cultures had changed. The times had changed as in her day it was easier to walk into jobs. By the time I was looking for work, there were thousands clamouring for fewer positions. Often people cannot understand this change because they only have their experience to refer to, but things change a lot, including what was possible and what is no longer possible.
One might argue, then you just must be better, to do better. This is true in India, China (a Confucian principle) and many other Asian countries, where an excellent and high achieving work ethic coupled with a huge population, causes young people to be under more pressure than ever to attain those coveted positions. This causes one of the following two things as en masse more people do excellently, the bar gets pushed higher, and people from such countries can often cherry pick jobs in other countries because they excel; or a greater division between those who succeed (the minority) and those who traditionally speaking do not (the majority). It’s about sorting out the reality from the stereotype.
America, a country long thought to possess no caste or class system, perpetuates other countries’ histories by having a quiet class system that is denied by the mainstream but very alive. For many families with money, sending their kids to schools that will guarantee the best universities and thus, the best networking and jobs, there is an obvious bias. We talk of ‘The American Dream’, but for the majority, the advantages they are born into, play an equal if not larger role in determining their outcome.
This is partly why discussions about reparation exist, because if families that were traditionally exploited are now generationally paying the price by not having generational wealth and influence to hand down to their children, they come from a position of inequality and inequity even as the American dream continues to be touted. And if those families are mostly families of colour, even more so, as you must consider the racial injustice of the past, which has been carried into the future by this ongoing inequity. The same is true in other countries, the idea we’re born equal and thus, we all have the same chance at a dream is naïve at best.
But how much does this play into a life well-lived? Is it essential to be conventionally successful to achieve such a goal? I would argue it is not. Whilst there are basic essentials coined by Psychologist Abraham Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs) that must be met to even be in the running. In other words, if you cannot afford the basics such as healthcare, economic security, education etc, you’re still stuck on trying to survive. In that sense, it’s a luxury for most to even consider a life well lived, because they are too busy surviving.
Let’s assume however, some of us reach that position of being economically sound enough to consider beyond the mechanisms of survival. Then let us ask ourselves what is a life well lived? Should it be like that of my mother? Being somewhat hedonistic but, true to myself, by doing exactly what she wanted and traveling the world where she could expand. When she passes, will she have felt her life was well lived? I’m guessing she will.
That’s because of a process called reconciliation. One must reconcile one’s regrets or things we were judged for, and if we are able to do this (many of us fail), then we find inner peace. With peace comes a sense of no matter what, we did the best we could, we gave it all we could, we’re glad for the life we lived. In a sense, this summation of a life well lived, is rooted in our self-perception and then that perception projected into a larger context. It takes a lot to consider more than our immediate circle. Perhaps if we could, we would be less fractured as a planet. Less liable to turn the other cheek when atrocities occur, or put our head in the sand and not think of future generations.
By coming together, universally, thinking in terms of all of us, not just as an individual, as touted so long by the West, we consider wholeness. Can we be whole if others are not? Should we be? And at the same time, not going so far as to lose a sense of ourselves or be merged into a homogenised, possibly too socialised loss of self? In other words, balance.
As you age you realise what mattered then doesn’t matter as much now. Or maybe, you come to realise that what you have always cared about, still matters. For myself, I am very different from my 15-year-old self, where I lived relatively hedonistically, caring about animals and injustice, but not doing enough about it. I see that at 15 , I thought mostly of having fun and generally being a little unrealistic about life. Some 15-year-olds aren’t that way. Why do some children grow up responsible and mature before their time, whilst others can be 30 and still fail to launch?
We can blame parenting, modern society, all sorts of things, but it’s probably more complicated than that. In Japan, many young people are literally shut-ins, (known as hikikomori) living on the cud of their parents income, rarely leaving their room, immersed in an unrealistic life, mostly online. Why do so few Japanese marry or have relationships comparatively speaking? Did the parents mess up? Or is this a symptom of a bigger sense of futility and despair felt by the young because some do think of the future?
I recall as a child I was unrealistic in my expectations, I truly thought I could do anything, be anything and this just wasn’t an honest evaluation of my situation. For some children, they knew they would be dentists at fifteen. For others, they did drugs and lived lost lives, before reinventing themselves. That’s the luxury of youth. But it’s not a permanent state. When you are older you realise, there isn’t as much time to ‘do anything / be anything’ and maybe that’s why I find some self-help/life coaches a little jarring. How long can we ‘do anything’ for realistically? Especially now, where different types of jobs are less than ever before, we’re being asked to homogenise into ever decreasing employment options. Many graduate law schools, formerly considered the pinnacles for employment, find no openings in an already saturated market, but should we doom a child’s dream if that’s what they want to do? The labour market doesn’t have a skills gap, it has an opportunity gap.
Many young people want to be famous, emulate some truly scary people, be unrealistically rich and have celebrity status. Less people want to heal, they want to make big bucks. Maybe they have it right. After all, when we do altruistic things but remain poor, how good does that feel when we can’t afford a car? With price hikes, standard of living seems to be improving because people have technology, but actually, we’re more in debt, without savings and living on a razor’s edge. Which might work at 25, but at 45 with children ready for college?
Again, I hark back to ‘balance’ and the need to live within one’s means, to have dreams that are capable of being pursued, and to help our kids dream up realistic jobs. The younger generations do not have the inherited wealth of the older, and immigrants often come with nothing to a country, depending upon the charity of that country, which is shrinking as our social services are overwhelmed and underfunded, even as immigration is on the rise.
Is the answer to print money? As has been discussed among Democrats? Or tax the rich and risk them leaving? Or is that a myth? With Covid 19 recently closing everything down, many formerly low wage workers were given monetary Covid compensations due to extended unemployment, which ended up being more than they were making as a badly paid waitress or shop worker. With some of those jobs vanishing forever, those that do return, see no employees willing to work for those wages again, and rightly so. But can we sustain a country if we pay what economists would consider a living wage? When $15 is already too little for someone to live on once tax and benefits are removed.
Increasingly we’re seeing a rise in people who fall through the cracks, they are the invisible workers whom we don’t know about, the underemployed, the fragile self-employed. That micro economy might not even show up on official statistics but look around, it exists. How likely can those people consider retiring in 30 years’ time? Can we blame those generations who are trapped by a system that doesn’t make it very likely to find an American Dream and what of the rest of the world, where survival comes long before the luxury of dreaming?
Where in this do we find concepts of lives well-lived? I think no such thing exists fundamentally but individually as we age, we should consider are we congruent to our concept of what a life well-lived means to us? Can we do anything to get closer to it? If so, what?
Recently I thought about this a lot and realised struggling with my health was my tipping point. For some that’s not their tipping point. A friend of mine said hers was losing her home. For me it was being told I was developing premature Macular Degeneration and with no treatment for Dry MD would lose my sight whilst still young. Facing those kinds of things forces us to consider what matters, what does not, and really think about how we value existence.
When I talk to people today, I recognise the value of clarity of purpose. When we know how best to direct our lives, we can spend more time on being the kind of person we want to be, rather than picking up the pieces from a series of failed impulses. If we remember how lucky we are to even have choices, when so many do not, even reading this on a computer puts us in a position of privilege, so rather than lamenting about what you do not have, consider what you need to live a life worth living and then do your best. Even half-way there might be enough to one day say, I have lived a life well-lived.
Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com
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