The Good Life
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Meet David, a young adult in Port Clinton whose story is told in the sociological text “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.” David’s parents separated when he was little; his father was sent to prison and his mother moved out. “I never really got to see my mom that much. She was never there,” David said. To deal with the stress, he often smoked marijuana or stayed away from home. He had trouble finding work outside of temporary jobs. Additionally, his girlfriend left him after she gave birth and now lives with a drug addict. Distraught by her betrayal and dead-end jobs, he wrote on Facebook, “I just want to feel whole again. I’ll never get ahead!” Despite this, David still tries to see his daughter as much as possible and give her the love he was deprived of.
David’s actions reveal fundamental truths of human existence: that we are social animals, that we are the unity of body and soul with both bodily and spiritual needs, and that the good life is one that fulfills these needs morally. Understanding these truths is vital, as they provide a guideline for how to lead our lives.
One of these aspects is that humans do not exist in isolation, but rather, in relationships with others; David’s impoverished relationship with his parents and girlfriend creates both economic and spiritual poverty for him. We always exist in the midst of communities that shape our lives and give context to our actions. These communities—families, schools, civic groups, and churches—to some extent, define us. In fact, our self-esteem is derived from what others think of us. We brag about how many likes we get on our profile picture. We get mad, even hurt, when people don’t text us back. In short, we are defined by our relationships, and we fulfill our basic needs in the midst of others.
These basic needs differ in kind and importance and correspond to who we are as human beings: a dynamic unity of body and spirit. First, there are basic bodily needs, which are the most primal: food, clean water, shelter, etc. To deny someone these requirements is to deny someone life. Additionally, we have extra material needs: without financial security, we live our lives in fundamental uncertainty and anxiety.
However, our needs are not only material; they are also spiritual. While David lives in financial poverty, he is spiritually impoverished as well. He desires the love and moral guidance that his parents should have provided, not wealth. Moreover, his primary goal in life has become showing love to his daughter, not material success.
Spiritual need, which ranks higher than bodily needs when searching for fulfillment, is a need to find value in life: to have a sense of higher purpose and meaning. This need is deeper, richer, and longer lasting than the others and is fulfilled in a variety of ways. Fulfillment often comes when we give ourselves to something bigger, or other than ourselves. That is, our sense of higher purpose is our sense to find completion by taking part in activities that primarily benefit others. We commonly feel this need through a desire to make an impact, whether it is in school, by joining clubs like Red Cross or The Spectator, our local community, by getting involved in our community board, or the world. Fulfilling this need is why people leave high-paying jobs at Goldman Sachs to pursue their passion. Personally, I used to scoff at people who would do that or at students who would major in theater or art in college. It was absurd in my mind because it would be financially destructive. However, now I see that they understand the importance of spiritual needs. Indeed, if our lives are oriented toward merely material gain, then we will be, as Martin Luther King said, “More concerned about making a living than making a life.” That is to say, in our concern for material gain, we lose sight of the need to find wholeness and richness in life. To be sure, material gain is necessary to live a whole life, but it is not sufficient.
With an understanding of human needs, we can construct a moral system. An action is moral if it acknowledges and uplifts their humanity as a dignified being with biological, emotional, and spiritual needs. As Martin Luther King said, “Any law that uplifts the human personality is just. Any law that degrades the human personality is unjust.” MLK used this model to justify civil disobedience: segregation laws degrade human personality by treating a class of humans unequally, hence they are immoral and should be reformed.
This understanding of morality can be applied to our personal lives as well. Take, for example, bragging about grades, a common practice in our school. On one hand, the celebration of academic achievement uplifts our mental abilities. However, bragging about grades goes beyond celebration, as it is used to degrade the humanity of others and ourselves by reducing people’s rich complexity and worth to a simple number.
Living a whole, or good, life is the fundamental concern in many of our actions. Whether it is staying up all night studying or waking up early Saturday morning to volunteer, we do such things because we believe that they help us live a good life. But given our previous observations, what does it mean to live the good life? I believe we now have the ideas and concepts to construct a skeleton of an answer. For one thing, the purpose of life can be said to fulfill our biological, material, and spiritual ends. Therefore, a good life is one that accomplishes these ends using moral means and habits.
These means are commonly referred to as virtues, character traits rooted in Greek, Confucian, and Judeo-Christian traditions. Though they are old, these virtues serve as a tested model to cultivate good character. One is temperance, which refers to moderation in physical and material pleasures. This can be cultivated through self-control of our desires. Another virtue is courage, which is the desire to persevere through hardship. Another one is justice, which is treating people the way they deserve to be treated. Most importantly, there is love, which is the self-giving of one toward another. Using wisdom, which is correct judgement, we can apply these virtues to behavior and fulfill our needs.
We should act in order to cultivate these virtues, which will help us become better persons. Actions that do not cultivate these virtues can even destroy our relationships with others. Take social media: an obsession with the number of likes on a picture, or whether or not a friend messaged you back, can lead to a lack of temperance, or addiction. Addiction is totalizing, and social media can soon consume a person’s priorities, encouraging procrastination. Moreover, social media is impersonal: interactions are carried out through the security of a screen, which often encourages unjust actions one would never take in real life. In this way, social media can encourage unloving behavior, affecting how we perceive ourselves and other people. This is not to say that social media is inherently bad, but rather that a lack of temperance and right judgement can lead to destructive outcomes. In fact, social media can be used to pursue good goals such as connecting with others and finding important information. Through good judgement, we are able to determine the limits to which we can use social media and use it to become more virtuous.
The end goal of practicing these virtues and leading a moral life is communion. Communion is a state that consists of both personal harmony, the just ordering and attainment of personal desires, and social harmony, the just ordering of societal norms and structures. The key to achieving a life in which we meet all our desires is by living a moral life that uplifts those around us.
Therefore, the good life is not led selfishly. While many of us are concerned with our own self-interest, like bragging about our grades, a fulfilling and moral life leads to the good of others. There is no dichotomy between self and group. Rather, they are all brought together in the harmony of communion. Achieving communion requires us to live out the truths ascertained in this article. Like medicine, these truths are meaningless unless they are appropriated. We do not need to just agree with these ideas but live them out. We need to appropriate, embrace, and indwell these truths by acting on them. Our lives should then be a performance of these truths, lived out in our relationships.