“It is not living that matters, but living rightly.” Socrates
If you are reading this article you are alive, and living your life. But what about living your life rightly? What does living rightly look like? Even Socrates would have trouble answering this question. He was better at asking questions than offering definitive answers. In our consumer society, some people believe that living rightly equates with accumulating wealth. It almost becomes a kind of religion! In search of salvation, chasing money, they look for the perfect job, the exotic holiday, the lucrative stock investment, or the big house that will save them. They believe that getting rich will lead to happiness. But look how many wealthy people are consumed by their possessions! Quite often they are not able to enjoy the things they buy. This phenomenon is a result of all the time and attention possessions require. Looking after all your possessions leads to a lot of worry, even anxiety. As one example, I have a friend who always parks his fancy car at the open end of a parking lot because he’s afraid of anyone scratching it!
Although Socrates was famous for tearing down people’s convictions - often by ridiculing their pre-suppositions - he was mainly concerned with ethical questions. How do we determine what is the right thing, the good thing, to do in any given situation? He felt the reward for acting well was peace of mind.
I think that the best modus operandi for living rightly is found in the “Golden Rule” which, significantly, is found in all major religions. Doing onto others as you’d have them do onto you is a recipe for happiness. Experience teaches us that we all feel pleasure and warm feelings after helping someone else. This emotional reward of gratification then encourages us to do more good things or actions that improve the lot of others. In this way, good works can also be construed as a selfish act - I do good things for others because it makes me feel good! This reciprocity creates an ongoing motivation for kindness. It’s what I’d call a sustainable recipe for doing good things.
Getting back to the problem of over-valuing riches, and understanding all the energy required in their pursuit, perhaps we need a new anti-consumer paradigm. I like what Wayne Dyer wrote about a person’s life value:
“The measure of your life is not what you can accumulate, but what you give away”.
This world-view would be particularly effective in the pursuit of a just society. A place where the separation between rich and poor would be significantly reduced. The opportunity for living rightly, in this context, is boundless. We can all give in our own way – through material gifts, our time, empathy, etc.
I believe that the best “calling” for all citizens is to create a just and fair community… where everyone has a chance to grow and learn in their lives. As one of my mentors taught me, life is like a 100-metre race – unjust societies put everyone at the starting line while enlightened societies move everyone up the race track so they’re closer to the finish line. This predominantly forward looking ethic recognizes that everyone needs a helping hand.
It is all about the future…and, most notably, it’s a selfless call to action.
The ancient Greek description of a healthy society sums it up best:
“A place where old men plant trees in whose shade they will never sit”.