How many of us are not living our dreams? What’s stopping us? And what does dedicating ourselves to closing the gap between what we wanted for our lives and how we are actually living them have to do with ethics?
The relevance of this question became clear when meeting for drinks with some mates in the run-up to Christmas. “George” had a few too many, then blurted out his profound sense of shame about being a green grocer. “I feel embarrassed to even tell people that’s what I do,” he confessed. Once, he had earned his keep as a musician, but years earlier had given it up.
Like most of us, he could produce reasons: the incompatibility of the all-hours itinerant lifestyle of rock bands with the demands of a young family; the need for a more reliable income. And yet his feelings of grief and self-loathing about opportunities lost were palpable.
Some of us have no choice but to sell ourselves short. Perhaps we are the main breadwinners in households that barely scrape by or, as was the case for a young woman I know, are the only possible carer for a dependant relative. Maybe the needs and wants of our partners or children are incompatible with ours, and must take precedence in the short or long term.
For others, however, the picture is less clear. Research conducted over decades confirms that beyond the level of income needed to fulfil our basic needs, additional income does not increase our life satisfaction. Yet despite this, many of us work longer hours than we want at jobs we despise in the desperate hope that one more purchase – the jaunty sports car, the renovations, the new dress – will finally deliver the happiness our consumerist culture promises (to make matters worse, rises in income may transitorily increase our satisfaction, potentially prompting us to pursue that next salary rise in search of another emotional rush). For men, such hamster-laps on the work-spend wheel may reinforce traditional masculine identity, long associated with provision.
Defining our own good, and living our lives in pursuit of it, is at the heart of a moral life. Aristotle thought that developing one’s skills and talents was essential to the project of living a virtuous life, which he understood as synonymous with the pursuit of happiness.
Most of us know that the best way to get the measure of our own lives is to imagine ourselves on our deathbeds looking back at our choices and deeds. What will we judge as worthy of our time and effort, and what a waste of both? Which journeys and detours will we cherish, and which will we regret?
Yet most of us avoid the scenario, even when directly invited to consider it. Even in the wake of George’s confession that night in the pub, my friends were no different. Suddenly, everyone was otherwise occupied. “I love this song,” noted one, drumming his hands on the table to the beat, while two others simultaneously noticed our empty pots and practically cracked heads getting to the bar for another round.
Such avoidance is understandable. The examined life solicits emotional attention and remedial response, while the unexamined enables us to carry on as we have been. Our lives are the sum total of our decisions, though these are not always freely made. To stare at the product of such efforts and admit they are wanting is to imply both the possibility and necessity for change and its corollary: moral responsibility for failing to change it. And the risks don’t end there. Making changes to one’s life, particularly fundamental ones that affect spouses and kids, is also fraught, with its disruptions and the ever-present possibility that things will go badly. Better, some of us clearly feel, to keep head down and bum up in the hope that the quantity rather than quality of our efforts, and determination to keep faith with the consumerist recipes for success with which we will all raised, will eventually find its reward.
And if this weren’t enough to keep us on the straight and narrow, our rationalisations for avoiding the hard questions may be self-reinforcing. It is human nature to strive to reduce dissonance between what we do and what we believe, with behaviour shaping our thoughts far more powerfully than the other way around. When what we do conflicts with our values, in other words, it is our values that tend to give way. So, in the same way that those who wish to believe in God should simply start praying, those who want to keep faith with the life they are currently living need do little more than continue to live it.
For what it’s worth, I need to say that I don’t think its good enough. No matter our age, or the things we’ve said or done in the past, it is never too late to live the examined lie. To remember the dreams we had for ourselves – the talents we sought to develop, the contribution we wished to make during our lifetimes both big and small – and to put them into action.
To sprint towards the finish line, before it’s too late.
Look at Yourself, Before It's Too Late The Sun Herald (Sydney)
Look at Yourself, Before It's Too Late The Age (Melbourne)