From a 2003 speech to college students by the author Kurt Vonnegut:
And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
Wouldn’t it be great to have an Uncle Alex around to regularly remind you to notice happy moments?
Or maybe you should be Uncle Alex, reminding others and yourself to notice the usually unnoticed small delights and kindnesses of daily life.
We are surrounded by wonder and deep mystery and the potential for little bits of joy that mostly get passed by in our dazed distraction or overwhelmed by the crush of complaints and worries that seem to consume our attention.
It’s easier to find something if you’re looking for it. Look for these moments. Notice when you’re happy.
Remind others, too.
“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” –John Stuart Mill
What if your happiness is to be found only incidentally—by the way—as you focus instead on the happiness of others, on something beyond yourself, on some pursuit that is an end in itself rather than a means to some hoped for end?
What if instead of looking for what you want or what you can get, you instead put your greatest and highest effort toward maximizing what you can uniquely give, what you can contribute?
You might just find yourself surprised by the kind of meaningfulness and happiness that you could never find by direct intent.
“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” –Robert Louis Stevenson
The only competition that matters is the competition between the version of who you are now and the version of you that you can become.
How is the you one year from now, say, going to be a more fully realized version of your potential than the you of today?
Will future you be able to kick the ass of current you?
What will it take now to begin becoming what you are capable of becoming?
Writing it down is a good start. Express in detail the kind of character you want to live your way into, the kind of life a person with your potential might live. Point yourself in that direction and begin the journey.
Shine with all you’ve got right now.
But get busy becoming.
Fulfill your potential.
“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.” –Michel de Montaigne
Good for Montaigne.
He certainly had the right idea, and I don’t doubt that he had more success than the average person in governing himself and avoiding the futility of worrying over things outside his control.
How simple it is to understand that the vast majority of things that have happened, that are happening, and that will happen are beyond our control.
How challenging it is, though, to genuinely accept our very limited role in the unfolding of events.
Stuff happens. You can see events as happening to you. Or you can see everything—even, or especially, undesirable events—as happening for you, as opportunities for you to choose wisely how to respond and how to govern yourself.
“If we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.” –Ben Marcus
Perhaps we are sleepwalking through life, trudging obliviously through the pattern we’ve grooved and smoothed to protect ourselves from the unevenness, from the surprises of reality.
Moments of genuine, bracing presence shine in my memory for their rarity.
You can’t live in perpetual amazement. (Some do, I suppose. Mystics or saints or those we deem crazy and avoid on the sidewalk.)
But even occasional doses of bafflement—with the infinite sky, with the joy or anguish of an open heart, with the sheer oddity of being alive and aware—would be a potent enough tonic for our numbness.
Pay attention. Come undone. Be amazed.
I get The Daily Stoic daily email. Today’s email quoted this passage from Walker Percy’s book, The Moviegoer:
“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”
I read this and smiled and got up from my desk with a little more courage.
Lately I’ve been feeling a little less sure and a little more lost than normal.
I don’t seem to be getting wiser as I get older. I’m just becoming even more aware of how little I truly know. Or maybe that’s what getting wiser is all about. If so, wisdom is not living up to the hype.
Regardless, I do know that I can live by my “lights”, by my meager understanding of what it means to be good and to do good.
I know how it feels to come alive, even momentarily, and shake off the half-hearted, half-asleep caution that most of us cower behind perpetually.
I can fight. I can attempt to rise, knowing I’ll still go down sooner or later. But in merely making the attempt I will prevail and fleetingly defy the gravity that aims to keep us from escape velocity.
Make the attempt. Shine where you can. Get up and get going and put up a fight. Be the hero of your own life.
“After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” –Philip Pullman
Humans are wired for story. It’s what knitted us together into a tribal species and ended up being a key to our eventual dominance of the planet. We built our culture on stories, useful fictions that allowed us to unite into communities that propelled us exponentially further than we could have gone on our own.
The quality of the stories we consume and tell can determine the quality of our lives.
If you lead others, what is the story that will bring out the best in those you serve? What is the big picture? What direction, what quest, what heroic call to action will move them and supply meaning?
If you’re simply trying to lead yourself, what kind of story would be worth telling with the way you live your life?
Too often we are victims of lousy stories—whether it’s that we’re stuck living out someone else’s story or our own failure of imagination is giving us a story unworthy of telling.
Make your story one worth talking about, one that you will delight in telling and delight in living.
This is timely insight from a 1959 interview with the philosopher Bertrand Russell about what he would say to a distant future generation of humans:
“I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.
The moral thing I should wish to say… I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”
This aligns nicely with my favorite quote from Russell: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”
Author William Saroyan’s advice to writers (which is good advice for non-writers, too):
“Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
But, there’s a lot of “try” in there. Yoda would counter: “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”
Wake up. Uncork the life force within. Be wholly alive as often as you can.
Marcus Aurelius: “A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.”
I don’t think we are each “made” for a particular vocation or calling.
But we are all made to be authentic human beings.
We are made for connection. We thrive as members of groups, as citizens of tribes, as sisters, brothers, fathers, and mothers.
We shine most brightly when we are a part of something bigger than just ourselves.
We are made for adventure, for journeys, for quests — literal and metaphorical.
We are made to be useful. We are adapted to solve problems and make a difference.
We are made to fully inhabit our bodies. Agility and strength and physical skill are coded into us. Those attributes may be asleep in many or even most, but humans are more than just a brain inhabiting a vehicle.
Walk more. Breathe mindfully. Move intently. Get stronger.
Un-numb your five senses.
We are made for curiosity and mystery and awe.
And for play and laughter.
And for wonder and delight.
Reflect on the moments of greatest delight in your life. Drill down to the core of that delight. Make room for more of that in your authentic human life.
“I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” –Franklin Roosevelt
This is from a time when fascism was all the rage and from a man who helped move us forward and past it.
The trend towards an even kinder and more enlightened society remains powerful. But progress is not inevitable.
Bettering our lot takes commitment and action and vigilance and a bracing clear-sightedness.
“Rage against the dying of the light.”
“The best way to get even with them is not to resemble them.” –Marcus Aurelius
Fight fire with… water.
Better to lose with your character intact than to win by becoming what you loathe.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.
Two steps forward, one step back.
But ultimately — over the long haul with determined effort and in spite of our worst tendencies — forward.
“You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you.”
Nike founder Phil Knight, in his memoir Shoe Dog, quotes this line from the movie Bucket List.
By whom do you measure yourself?
And who sees you as the measure, as a model, as an inspiration for their aspirations?
“When I begin a poem I don’t know—I don’t want a poem that I can tell was written toward a good ending… You’ve got to be the happy discoverer of your ends.” –Robert Frost
Just get going without concern for the precision of your ending point.
It’s in the going and the doing that you are likely to make your best art and discover your true self.
Don’t overthink it. Don’t expect to have the answers before beginning.
Be open to detours and delays and scenic overlooks.
And be open to surprise.
Just get going.
The inscription Neil DeGrasse Tyson wants on his tomb stone:
Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity. –Horace Mann
Yet, this is standard procedure for most of us.
(I, at least, leave my fluorescent lights off while I aimlessly browse the web. Nothing but the warm glow of a desk lamp to light my forays into creative futility.)
Nice post on the UGMONK blog to remind you to regularly change your scenery: “How I Stay Inspired and Come Up with New Ideas”
Get up. Get out. If you’re going to aimlessly browse, make it something not built of 1’s and 0’s.
“Beware of advice, even this.” –Carl Sandburg
via Scott Berkun
Learn all you can from the experience and wisdom of others, but ultimately you have to live your own life as best you can on your own.
“Your kids… They don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” –Jim Henson
via Austin Kleon
What you consistently do and how you act, that’s your message.
What you say is pointless if it’s not in sync with who you are.
Even kids—especially kids—can see through empty words.