In the new Ian McEwan novel, “The Children Act,” the author briefly summarizes (via the mind of his protagonist, a family law judge) what’s necessary for the good life:
“She listed some relevant ingredients, goals toward which a child might grow. Economic and moral freedom, virtue, compassion and altruism, satisfying work through engagement with demanding tasks, a flourishing network of personal relationships, earning the esteem of others, pursuing larger meanings to one’s existence, and having at the center of one’s life one or a small number of significant relations defined above all by love.”
See how deftly McEwan rings the bell at the end. With many fine notes along the way.
These are, let’s remember, goals and not demands, aspirations and not requirements. Interesting, isn’t it, that he mentions “work” so prominently — an echo of something we mentioned in passing a few weeks ago. I have to reconcile this with my goal of not doing anything at all other than puttering around. (Good heavens, is it already the Monday after New Year’s? We have to go to work again?) (Didn’t someone brand that recently? “Blue Monday”?)
I like also that McEwan cites the importance of “larger meanings to one’s existence.” There has to be more to life than a second helping of cake.
Goal: Be more than a bag of protoplasm engaged in chemical reactions that turn energy and fuel into waste.
The good life should ripple outward, its effects magnified in other people and larger purposes. The good life is one that has been freed of the tyranny of solipsism, and the minor pains and insults that inevitably come from self-absorption. (I am still working on mastering this move.)
Each of us could add to, or at least annotate, McEwan’s summation, and I’d like to put in a good word for learning, for being able to discover new things, to slake intellectual thirsts. Learning is both an activity and a right — a right too often denied to many people on the planet because they happened to be born poor, or female, or geographically isolated, or within a community that believes learning is fundamentally dangerous.
“Learn constantly” is a good aspiration. You can take the temperature of someone’s mental health by seeing how eagerly he or she embraces learning, including entirely new subjects, new visions, and sounds and flavors. The willingness to be an amateur in a new field is healthy; one does not have to limit oneself to a singular, tiny patch of Earth. This is not quite the same advice as “climb every mountain,” because, as has been stated here before, you need to learn to delegate. But let’s face it, gravity and inertia are not our friends. The physics of life conspires to nail us to one spot, until we realize, suddenly, that we’ve been sitting in the same chair and thinking the very same thoughts since roughly the Truman administration. The goal isn’t learning so much as it’s just living. Liven up! Shake a leg! For gosh sakes.
Of course I’m talking to myself out loud here. Conceivably I just need a new hat. I’ve seen what a new hat can do, how it can transform an ordinary person into Jackie O or Cary Grant or some extraordinary combination of the two.
See you at the milliner’s.