How to Live in a World in Which the Good Life is Never Really Possible

The important follow-up question to “What is the good life?”

The culture-questioning voices on blogs like Humane Pursuits and Front Porch Republic inflict great distress on people like me. More often than not, we devotees of writers like Wendell Berry find ourselves, in spite of our desires, unable to escape the dilemmas surrounding our lifestyles and choices. I detest suburban Maryland, but here is where I live for the sake of my husband’s job and mine. I believe in eating local food, but sometimes that means spending more than I can afford; or surviving on potatoes in March.

What do you do when people on all sides are informing you (sometimes rather judgmentally) what “the good life” is, but you’re not in a position to be able to live it?

One of my college music professors encouraged his students to use their free time only for genuine leisure activities—only those worthwhile things that gave pleasure for their own sake, such as conversing with others or enjoying nature or great art. I don’t remember what his criteria were, but they had to draw the mind to consider the transcendent. You couldn’t count pop music, movies, or TV shows—entertainment created for an ephemeral audience.

His reasoning convinced me, and I tried to follow his injunction. I found it to be impossible for two reasons. The first was that my friends didn’t fancy spending every weekend reading poetry or watching Verdi operas. Sometimes I had to be willing to watch an action movie. It was a dilemma between keeping my purist values and maintaining the more important value of community.

The other thing I found was that some days, my brain is just too overloaded to handle a Mozart piano concerto after dinner. After a long day of work, you might just want to put your feet up, drink a beer, and enjoy some entertainment, not for its own sake, but for the sake of helping your tired body or brain wind down.

My professor insisted on serious leisure, and there are those who will argue just as ardently that work, too, is meant to be done for its own sake. In Why Work,” Dorothy Sayers writes that work should be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.

Contrary to what most people believed then (in 1940s England) and now, “work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do.” Her argument is similar to that of Wendell Berry, who writes that work ought to be satisfying to both body and mind.

We Millennials are realizing, however, that most people don’t get their dream jobs. Sayers would say that few of us find satisfaction in our labor because our consumerist economy is rotten from the inside, valuing money and cheap labor instead of the laborer and the work. But within that flawed system, we all still have to put food on the table, and that might mean flipping hamburgers. Even when people are working jobs that are “the full expression of the worker’s faculties,” there are still times when it’s going to feel like drudgery. The stay-at-home mom has a worthy calling, but I can think of few activities less fulfilling than cleaning a perpetually dirty kitchen while dealing with the tenth tantrum of the day.

Work is often unsatisfying, and leisure at times inane, because the world is broken. Leisure ought to refresh us for work, and work subside pleasantly into evening conversations over Verdi and T.S. Eliot and the best that artistic traditions have to offer. But let’s be honest; this idyllic situation is rare. What is the good life? is an important inquiry. But it ought to be followed by the more practical question, How does one go about living in a world in which the good life is never really possible?

In some cases, the dilemmas of a broken world may force you into ethical tradeoffs of the kind that Sarah Gilbert describes in her essay Trapped.” In Gilbert’s mind, any activities that produce waste or greenhouse gases are unethical, because they harm the earth and future generations who will live off the earth. But these activities are difficult to avoid. Gilbert calls the rationalizations people invent to justify unethical behavior “ethical traps.” You may decide that staying alive, or having a good job, or keeping friends, conflicts with saving gas or living thriftily. Or you may simply reason that “everyone else is doing it,” or that “the emissions from my little Prius hardly produce any pollution, in comparison to everyone else’s.” Whatever they may be, everyone falls daily into ethical traps, many of which we can’t avoid.

Gilbert offers a way to live with ethical traps—and with any kind of daily compromise. Her solution is to live so as to reveal the compromises, and so remind herself and others of the ethical ideal. She bicycles everywhere with her children, wears stylish hand-me-downs, and feeds her family on local food. She hopes these ostentatious deviations from the norm will undermine the self-satisfaction of observers by revealing their ethical failures.

At first, Gilbert might sound a little like a pharisee who takes pleasure in highlighting people’s sins and watching them squirm. But she points out that she is in no position to judge, since her own lifestyle is riddled with traps. She still uses a laptop, leaves some trash for the garbage truck, and heats her house with gas. It sounds as though Gilbert has managed to see her compromises—arguably unavoidable ones—through a lens of humility. What matters is that even when she falls short, she is always reminding herself of the ideal.

With dilemmas like these, decisions are never a case of choosing white over black; there will always be a thousand shades of gray. But that doesn’t mean choices don’t matter. It may be that they matter more than ever. Rather than giving up the ideal, the answer is to maintain, in spite of brokenness, a vision of the unbroken ideal for which you aim. Our decisions should involve humble acceptance of compromise as well as intelligent evaluation: strive to meet the ideal when you can, and know where you compromise when you can’t meet it. And let the compromises be reminders, to yourself and others, of the ideal in its absence, as the successes are reminders in its presence. Perhaps you can see those successes asmanna in the wilderness”on the way to the promised land.

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