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We must practice the art of living, here and now, however broken the world may be

Just as we thought we were on the other side of the pandemic, with all the harms that inflicted, both natural and political, we were confronted with another giant curve-ball: Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, the most significant military incursion in Europe since World War II. Scenes of tanks moving in on Kiev rekindled some of the visceral anxiety and fear that was still raw from a global pandemic.

Many felt, and continue to feel, indignant and helpless in the face of this global spectacle of avoidable human suffering. This sentiment is understandable and very human. But it should not distract us from the business of living our own lives, to the fullest, to the best of our ability. No matter how tough things get, we only get one shot at living. No matter how much we may lament the imperfections and injustices of this world, the clock keeps ticking, and every day is a precious gift, that will only come around once.

While we may – and should – dream of a day when political structures are more just and fundamental liberties are properly protected, we should never have contempt for the little things that give life meaning, in the here and now. The smile of a baby child; the love of a spouse; a family dinner; a close and enduring friendship; or a bit of support we give to someone in need. We only get one shot at living, day by day. Let’s not waste it. The great train of life does not wait for the Trudeaus and Bidens and Putins and van der Leyens of this world to come to their senses.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand the importance of fighting for a better and more just world. But the noble fights we join are not just a stepping-stone to a better life; they must also be part of a life worth living.

The zeal with which we fight for change should not be allowed to obscure our duties toward ourselves and our loved ones to make the most out of the life we have, right now. We must practice the art of living, here and now, however broken and messed up the world may seem to us.

I offer this little carpe diem reflection, not as an excuse to stop fighting for what we believe in, but as a reminder to myself and my readers that one of the ways we fight for what is right and good is by shaping our life into something beautiful, no matter what our political and economic leaders do, and no matter how ugly things may get in the world around us.

Those of us who fight bravely for noble causes run the risk of getting burnt out, and expending so much of our emotional energy on an external cause that we lose a sense of meaning and purpose at a personal level. But if we lose our soul, so to speak, in the pursuit of a better world, the pursuit itself becomes senseless.

On this matter, the experience of the young utilitarian crusader John Stuart Mill is rather instructive.

The young John Stuart Mill, who had been taught by his father from an early age that his mission in life was to bring about the “greater good of the greater number,” entered the political fray with great enthusiasm and energy as a young man, fighting for noble causes like womens’ suffrage. He had barely reached the age of 20 when he was already confronting what might otherwise be described as a “mid-life crisis.” He realised, for the first time, that even if he made the whole world happy, his own life would be devoid of meaning:

It was in the autumn of 1826. I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to; unsusceptible to enjoyment or pleasurable excitement; one of those moods when what is pleasure at other times, becomes insipid or indifferent; the state, I should think, in which converts to Methodism usually are, when smitten by their first “conviction of sin.” In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” At this my heart sank within me: the whole foundation on which my life was constructed fell down. All my happiness was to have been found in the continual pursuit of this end. The end had ceased to charm, and how could there ever again be any interest in the means? I seemed to have nothing left to live for.

 

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873)

Mill then entered a deep and prolonged depression, according to his own account, which you can find in his short autobiography. And what lifted him out of his depression was the discovery, through romantic thought, that what gives meaning and purpose to life is not just achieving good in the world, but realising one’s full personal potential, or growing on the inside as a human being. Mill began to see that he must care for his own soul, and that if he did not, he risked losing his bearings completely.

None of this means that fighting hard for a just cause is a bad idea, just because there’s a risk we’ll lose our interior bearings or burn out. However, there are more and less intelligent and gracious ways to pursue a cause. If we pursue a cause in the world so zealously as to forget who we are on the inside, the cause itself can become our own undoing.

How can we responsibly engage in the art of living in a fast-changing world weighed down by threats of bio-surveillance, disease, political corruption, and social inequality and exclusion, while keeping our inner moral compass intact and preserving the joie de vivre?

Two considerations come to mind:

First, given the frenetic pace, and ceaseless challenges of modern life, both at the personal and political levels, the only way to preserve inner poise and balance is by tending to our soul, rather than simply running forward with determination. It would be a tragic loss if we dedicated our energies to creating a better world and lost our interior equilibrium and sense of meaning and purpose in the process. That is a lesson we can learn from the autobiography of John Stuart Mill, and probably from our personal experience as well.

Second, the very disappointing calibre of our current crop of politicians does not warrant much optimism about the possibility of far-reaching and humanising structural changes in our political institutions, at least in the short term. There is a very real possibility that your and my efforts to live and work with dignity, raise a family, and build up thriving communities, may have to be undertaken in spite of, rather than with the support of, the political structures we find ourselves nested within.

The truth is, there are no easy solutions for building up humane and just communities in a world that is, in many ways, hostile to human freedom and dominated by unjust political and economic elites. Nonetheless, we would still do well to consider how each one of us can go “back to basics,” and renew and rebuild our personal and social lives, with or without the help of our political leaders and institutions.

If political leaders and public authorities enable us in these efforts, we should be grateful for their assistance.

If they do not, we can still learn to cultivate corners of freedom and creativity, and if necessary, engage pro-actively in entrepreneurial and counter-cultural initiatives that flow from who we are and what we believe in.

We cannot know in advance how far-reaching the impact of these initiatives will be, and which of them will serve as examples for the wider community to emulate. But they are at least a way of taking back a little bit of control “in our own backyards.”

We can only reconcile outward initiatives with our deeper aspirations as human beings if we know who we are. And we can only know who we are, if we take time out to care for our souls, and foster the types of friendships and communities that build us up, rather than tear us down.

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