How are we to live?
This is the title of a book I read many years ago when I had just graduated from university. I just noticed that the book by Peter Singer has most recently been published again in 2012. I suppose it is the type of book a person picks up when either confronted with an existential crisis, cross-roads, or challenging point in life.
Like so many things in life, many of us often wish there was a comprehensive instruction manual. Take parenting for example – no manual comes with the kid and even if it did, it likely wouldn’t apply to your model. The bigger question of how are we to live may seem a ridiculous question but I believe most people in their lives pause at least once and ask, “Am I doing the right thing” or “Am I making the right decision?”
Most of us ponder these questions in our head and know we will never receive a direct answer. It is a mute, rhetorical question. It is perhaps the scariest kind of question in that we ask it in our moment of greatest need and generally know that nobody will give you an answer and if they did, the answer would be something like, “It depends” or “There is no right way.”
A religious person might ask God and wait for an answer. If the answer didn’t come soon enough, the religious person might ask their priest or minister and likely receive an answer such as “God works in mysterious ways.” Which is of course to say, they don’t know either. A spiritual person might ask the universe the big questions and wait for a sign or some indication. A person who is neither atheist nor spiritual really goes at the big questions with knowledge that this life is entirely of their own making and “destiny” is not some divine plan but rather the consequences of their decisions and actions or lack thereof.
When I read Singer’s book in 1996, I had recently graduated from university and had moved to the United States. I really felt like I was embarking out on my own for the first time and had no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it. I hoped Singer’s book would provide me some road map and, in a way, it did. Essentially Singer believes that a person must live in accordance with their own set of ethics and values. Even a devoutly religious person may have a set of their own personal values or ethics laid on top of those dictated by their God. A spiritual person might layer their ethics and values on top of their idea of spiritual or universal laws.
Either way it seems that as we bumble, stumble, or stride through this life, all decisions and questions related to how are to live must be based on our personal ethics and values. Generally when we ask ourselves the big, mute, rhetorical questions we are feeling stressed, challenged, and scared. Many of us have no deity-crafted, safety net or big book of instructions and scripture. We must dig deep at these moments and ask ourselves, “Is this in alignment with my values or ethics?” It begs the question, “How do you know what your values or ethics are?”
I find this to be fundamentally a bigger question than, “How are we to live?” If we are clear about our values and ethics then maybe the question of how should we live our life is moot. Your ethics and values are generally one part nature and one part nurture. You initially model some of them after your parents and then later you model some of them after other adult role models but at some point you may question whether these values or ethics are genuinely yours or something you tried on for size.
I am of the opinion that authentic values and ethics are sensed to be accurate intuitively. We know when something offends our values when it causes a visceral reaction. I think it takes decades of life experience to shed enough of the fatty ego to know when your values or ethics are truly yours and not part of your social accouterments.
As my wife and I enter the fifth month of a new business in which we risked all monetary and physical possessions, we both hold each other at night and each see a reflection of sometimes scared eyes. I sometimes ask myself, “Am I doing the right thing?” I can’t say this business was inspired by God or led by some flash of light from the universe. We wanted to create an ethical business that aligned with our values. During those scary moments when we look in each other’s eyes…that’s all we have: belief in something built on our combined system of ethics and values.
I imagine I will have many more times when I will be scared and ask myself the big questions but maybe, just maybe they are becoming less rhetorical.