No one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbor, if you would live for yourself. (Seneca)
My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute. (Ayn Rand)
Before we go too far in analyzing time as a lens for looking at life in a new way, we should address a basic question – What are we trying to achieve? I would say we’re looking for a mashup of the preceding quotes.
Though they may seem fated to contradict one another, perhaps these two ideas can coexist. Or even work together. And in so doing, perhaps they reveal the secret to getting it right in life. Of course, the trouble with thinking you’ve got it right is that you have to get to the end (or down the road a good ways) to know for sure.
But we can imagine. We can project, can we not? Let’s fast forward to our final appearance, to our funeral. I would argue that a sure fire way to know if you’ve lived a good life is to look over the audience at your funeral and to hear the words that are spoken. If the room is empty, you missed. That’s obvious. But if the ceremony is a packed house, see-and-be-seen affair, you fared no better.
The best case, in my view, is a sizable gathering of people who knew, appreciated, and in many cases, loved you very dearly. A room full of people who are devastated at the loss of so bright a light. Notice the first thing is that they knew you. I mean, they really knew you. You were yourself, you were honest, and they appreciated and loved you anyway.
(For more on this, see an earlier post of mine about living honestly – called Be What They Expect.)
And their words are filled with stories of how you made their lives better, how you inspired them, cared for them, and made them laugh. At this point, the whole thing is a scene. Rivers of tears are flowing down the aisles. The Sham-Wow guy is handing out freebies saying, “You know you’re gonna wanna dry that.” There’s even a hologram of Jerry Garcia singing “Ripple.”
THAT is a good funeral. The guy who gets THAT funeral knocked it out of the park.
Though it seems like a morbid fantasy, a close approximation to this funeral is within reach for all of us. We just have to reconcile the idea that we are all heroes driven to bring about our own happiness with the idea that one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do.
The trick is pretty simple – acknowledge that our happiness is tied up with our relationships with others. Loneliness and bad relationships inhibit happiness, whereas good relationships promote it (and more good relationships promote more of it). So you should live for your neighbor, but only insofar as it promotes good relationships. Similarly, you should pursue productive achievement, but with the same important caveat.
I have a lot to say about what constitutes a good relationship, but that will have to wait until the next post. For now, let’s stick with this notion of reconciling selflessness with selfishness. Remember, we’re working backwards from an awesome funeral, so we’re interested in what kinds of things we can focus on that will fill that room with people who have really cared for and appreciated us.
Filling a room, by itself, is no easy task. If you’ve planned a party or event any time in the last few years, you know how busy people are and how competing for a spot on a calendar takes a lot of work. Bottom line, even though people reshuffle schedules for funerals, it’s not enough to be nice. You have to be impressive. In fact, you have to be inspiring if you really want to draw a crowd.
It’s difficult to overstate how important this is. If you want to get to the end and know you did it right, you need to be living big RIGHT NOW. Being the master of time – making the most of your most precious resource – is the key to this. But, for the moment, it’s enough to remember that getting on a path and passively riding it to the end will see to it that your funeral party can fit in a broom closet. It is your selfish desire to suck the marrow from life that will fill a funeral hall.
On the other hand, it is your selflessness, your interest in others, that will see to it that your guest list isn’t just filled with shallow hangers-on. We just need to be a little careful here. Love others more than we love ourselves seems almost a cliche’ these days. The notion of being selfless has never been more in fashion. At least in theory.
Try to be interested instead of interesting. It’s not about you. When you help others, you make the world a better place. Blah, blah, blah. These pieces of advice often come off as new age blather because they are actually very hard to follow. This is because our genetics work against us. If you don’t think so, try to find a truly selfless act. As cynical as it is, most any act that is apparently altruistic can usually be connected to some benefit to the person doing the acting. Beyond that, being truly selfless is generally impractical.
Think about the extreme of living for your neighbor. You work all day and then bring your pay home and distribute the money evenly amongst all of the people in your area. You allocate all of your waking hours to doing things to help those same people. You are completely selfless, right? Yes, and your ability to do anything for anyone else quickly vanishes as you necessarily become preoccupied with sustaining yourself. In short, as James Altucher likes to say, you have to put your mask on first or you’re no help to anyone.
So where does that leave us? Is selfishness such as that described by Seneca our only option? Are we doomed to fill a funeral hall with douchebags? Of course not. Remember, we benefit (in the form of happiness) from nurturing good relationships. Regardless of our genetics, we’re rational beings with free will, so we can choose to be interested in other people and spend our time on/with them. The real issue is the time horizon for the benefits we expect to obtain from doing this. (Yes, everything comes back to time sooner or later.)
The bad version of selfishness is focused on getting an immediate return on investment. This is the crass, despicable side of looking out for number one. It’s why people have such an aversion to the word selfish. But, if the ultimate realization of your most selfish desire is a kickass funeral, then all sorts of good things are possible – one of which is striking a balance between helping yourself and helping others.
So let’s tie it all together. Seneca says we shouldn’t live with regard for ourselves alone. He’s right because self-centered people repel good relationships, and we need good relationships to have a good funeral. Ayn Rand, however, says we should be self-centered because our happiness is the moral purpose of our lives. She’s right, too – so long as we remember that productive achievement can mean a lot of things, including nurturing good relationships. Rand fills the hall, and Seneca keeps out the riff raff.
Some of you may have picked up on the similarity between my “picture your funeral” concept and Steven Covey’s “begin with the end in mind” habit. They are, indeed, alike, but my approach solves a big problem with imagining your ideal eulogy.
Suppose your funeral is packed with people who have a social obligation to attend. Maybe you were a shrewd Hollywood producer who screwed people over to succeed. Maybe you were obsessed with work and paid little attention to your friends and loved ones. But you became a big shot. You were very rich, and you held the careers of many people in your hands. Would we not expect the loveliest of eulogies? People saying the nicest things, while the attendees smirk and snicker wondering who exactly they’re talking about.
No, the eulogy isn’t good enough. Any system that would allow you to make such massive life mistakes and still reach the ideal goal is a flawed system. Getting it right is about how many quality people are there and how much they cared and appreciated you. That’s the end you should have in mind.
Next we dive deep into the good, the bad, and the ugly of human relationships.