10/17/21

Life's Owner's Manual

It might be nice if we were all given, at birth, something like an owner's manual for life. Perhaps such a manual would include warnings about possible errors and missteps, frequently asked questions about human existence, and step-by-step guides on how to accomplish major life tasks. Perhaps it would also include a checklist of all the things a person must do, in order to truly live well. Perhaps each manual could include a personalized checklist just for the individual to whom it was given. One section could be titled: "All The Things EVERYONE Must Do, To Live Well", instructing us to learn how to make a living, to learn how to get along with others, to develop our sense of humor, to find our courage, etc. The next, individualized, section could be titled: "What YOU Have to Do, To Live Well". Perhaps one person would be required to become an artist, while another would be required to go to war. Perhaps one person would be required to get married, or travel, or to pursue greatness, while another would be forbidden from doing these things at all costs.

No such perfect manual exists, of course, notwithstanding the claims made on behalf of certain religious or philosophical texts. And yet, it may be argued that there is at least one thing we know is required of us, if we truly wish to live fully and well. And that requirement is, in effect, to write our own Life's Manual. Because no one is simply going to hand us such a thing, we have to compose it for ourselves. 

To put this another way, if we truly wish to live well, we must lead examined lives. We must consider who we truly are, and what we truly believe about ourselves and our world, and discern how to act accordingly, to the degree it's in our power to do so. We must wrestle with certain fundamental questions, whether or not we ever actually find any answers. We must do more than merely what we're told to do or merely what we want to do, more than merely float along the random currents into which we happened to be spawned.

Yet another way of saying this is, we must each compose our own philosophy of life, our own chosen way of seeing things and deciding things, our own chosen priorities, passions, and commitments.   

After all, what's the alternative? Not to compose your own philosophy of life is simply to allow others to do it for you, and they will almost certainly not do it as well as you would, because no one knows you better than you know yourself. Not to compose your own philosophy of life is to risk getting to the end of life filled with regret over the greatest missed opportunity imaginable, the opportunity of your very existence.

It's also not enough merely to sub-contract the composition of one's philosophy of life to some supposedly higher power or ideology, which is just another version of letting someone else do for you what you should do for yourself. If you do adopt a ready-made religion, ideology, philosophy, or tribal identity (as most of us actually do), it is still you, yourself, who made that choice. At the very least, you ought to know why you did so, and have reasons for that choice worthy of both yourself and of your adopted perspective. But even then, your own unique personality and life circumstances will demand your own unique discernment. They will present countless challenges for which only you can find the best and truest response. 

This all entails a great deal of work and a great deal of risk, of course. Lacking the aforementioned perfect life's manual, there's no guarantee that, having done what will surely be the work of a lifetime in composing our own, we will have done it wisely or correctly. We may muck it up, and this will be painful, because we made the choice to take responsibility to do it, ourselves. Yet there can be no doubt that the rewards outweigh the risks. Not to discern one's life philosophy is like standing in line for hours at an amusement park, waiting around for a ride that may or may not be thrilling for a moment or two (or may simply cause you to vomit). But doing the work required to discern a life philosophy is like climbing a mountain or sailing to some undiscovered coast, an actual adventure. It's the difference between sitting in a movie theater for two hours, passively experiencing a simulation of life, or actually living the kind of life that's worthy of movie treatment (or at least a rousing eulogy).

To compose one's philosophy of life is to make a poetry of one's life, or a symphony. It is to ask life's questions according to one's own inflections, to answer them on one's own terms, to live as fully and authentically as possible, hopefully draining life to the dregs before it's all said and done.  

And if considerations of this sort prove insufficient to motivate us to this sacred pursuit, it should also be remembered that it's a privilege most human beings have not fully enjoyed. Most people, past or present, are too occupied with basic survival, or contending with whatever oppressive systems that stand over them, to shape and follow their philosophies of life as much as they might like. This is not to say that those living in poverty or lacking in education are incapable of discerning their philosophies of life, because that is far from the case. But it is to say that the task may be far more restricted and restrained for them than they could wish. 

What excuse is there, then, not to do this? If life is like some kind of game show in which the contestant has to choose from various options to receive various prizes, and if Door One is to go with the flow and lead an unexamined life, while Door Two is to do the work of living an examined life, then Door Two leads to the real prize. Finding that no one has handed us a manual for life at birth, but finding that we, instead, have the means and the opportunity to compose our own, we must consider ourselves most fortunate. We may find that we need to revise our philosophies of life many times. We may find that sometimes they seem ragged and empty, or outdated as life's circumstances change. We may find that over time they get lengthier and more complex, or shorter and simpler, or that one philosophy of life has to be scrapped altogether, so another may be composed. But we may also find that these many revisions are themselves an adventure and a joy, never attaining anything like perfection but experiencing true bliss in the attempt. And it may be justly hoped that, having simply done our best to live in this way, we will reach our life's ends knowing the universe gave us one great opportunity, to live well, and that we did not pass it by. 


Life's Owner's Manual

It might be nice if we were all given, at birth, something like an owner's manual for life. Perhaps such a manual would include warnings...