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WHAT IS A LIFE WELL LIVED? (by Asif Zaidi)

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Our notion of what signifies the success of a person’s life is deeply subjective and steeped in our aspirations and biases. However, what is not subjective is that the transformation of a person’s life is fundamentally a result of that person’s effort. Nobody can be of much help in a man’s working upon himself and trying to break a new ground within one’s own being. It is solely up to each individual to define the import and success of his/her life, sometimes proactively and sometimes in responding to the life’s situations and choices.

Recently I attended a leadership training program organized by my organization for its executives. This was a five-day long intense program including lectures from the top executives/CEOs of different organizations and from some of the foremost leadership gurus like Marshall Goldsmith, Thomas J. Delong, Robert Steven Kaplan, Jim Loehr etc. While it was a useful experience, it is amusing to see how the man’s age-old quest for the knowledge of how best to live and a love for wisdom have been distilled into the skills to be successful in the modern day corporate world. Skills aimed at taking the maximum bite out of our prospects for success and happiness and often calibrating our morals to succeed while remaining compliant with the law and grounded in the relevant organizational ethos. Somewhat echoing Dostoevsky –who perhaps was the first Western thinker to subject conscience to such tough and honest scrutiny- in that human conscience is often inconsistent and irrational. Socrates’s motto ‘know thyself’ is elevated into deifying the self. However, apart from using the knowledge imparted to climb the corporate ladder higher and faster, an individual can learn a lot from the modern day leadership mantras. For instance, these clearly afford tools and opportunity for an intellectual self-examination leading to greater self-awareness thus helping one become a more emotionally attuned person by learning the imperative of emotional self-transparency. This enables an individual to relate to much bigger range of emotions without having to grasp Freud. Self-awareness lessens the risk of our becoming slaves of our feelings that we would otherwise be unaware of and helps us relate to the cold facts in a more rational manner rather than letting our emotions cherry-pick the facts for us. As Jonathon Glover writes in one of his articles: “Knowledge of the possibility of unconscious factors distorting our view of our situation places on us a special duty of scrutiny”.

Hence, the desire to succeed in the modern corporate world is surely a legitimate passion and, in the process, affords one a tremendous opportunity for doing good and achieving multidimensional personal growth. Thanks to better management systems, the people who work the system to get ahead at all cost are increasingly becoming a minority. Though in practical life one has to often contend with psychic hard-drives with embedded programmes to succeed at all cost. If training programs like this one can convince a few of those to examine their positions that their hard-nosed ambition spells out, that is every bit worth the effort. Yes, some of them will continue to claim the credit they don’t deserve. Some others will remain stuck on fawning and sucking up –which remains ubiquitous in most corporations- or will continue to fall for the super-skilled suck-up of the modern corporate genre. Yet most people can improve, if they want to, by working on their foibles when they are shown the mirror.

As I sat there and listened to the speakers, some of whom quite erudite, I reflected on a couple of things. One, this is all about what we expect from life and how best to get it. Does life also expect something from us and, if yes, what? Two, the success of a life is not about winning a race. Rather it should be judged by the fulfilment of the purpose we assign to it which in turn determines what we deem valuable and important in life. So what then is a life well lived? It is up to each individual to define the standards based on which his accomplishments can mark the distinction between his life’s successes and its failures.  The quality of a life as lived must depend on the totality of acts, work, commissions, and omission ascribed to that life. At the end this alone determines the productivity and quality of life to the one who lived or those who watched or examine its course. This is the setting in which life should be viewed. While the lives of great people are usually judged in the context of a span of time that is much greater than their own lives, as the judgment of their contemporaries can never be decisive of their worth as a force in human history, all of us have the power to influence life beyond our life-span by sowing the seeds of our legacy as teachers, parents, doctors etc.

An individual’s life is a cross-section of a larger whole, and what we are at a given moment is not fully known to us much less to those around us. With hindsight, to our own selves, we appear in diverse garbs as if we have all the time been playing a role as Shakespeare said. Much of what we do, in retrospect, appears to us less significant as passing phases; with our worries looking absolutely pointless, our pursuits a fading shadow, and most our accomplishments transient melodies with the reverberations of their notes fast vanishing. We should then judge ourselves in transcendental context, examining our successes and failures in the perspective of some cosmic purpose. As I, thus, ponder over the course of my own life I try and figure out what credentials must my life present before I could call it “well lived”? To start with, the human-in-itself is a creature of instinct moved by the forces of life like other animals, its body being its instrument of action and its biological needs aligned with the Nature’s purpose of preserving its individual life as well as the existence of the specie to which it belongs. As the instincts of human life are regulated by its ability to reason, even its lowest manifestation is at a level higher than those of animals. Hence, being decent human beings and sincerely fulfilling our commitments as parents, friends, citizens etc form the core of our existence - the base we strive to build from. As we rise above the base, wealth, power, distinctions, and fame may be important but do not provide a dependable gauge to measure the real value or quality of life. These factors are, of course, varyingly important to different people and can thus be helpful in assessing the life’s quality but they are not at all decisive. I have come across a number of people who scored high on these criteria but appeared devoid of any real inner worth or significance. This may be because there is some kind of indescribable sense or significance of our life without which our external achievements do not suffice. Unless our life is connected with that world of universal significance we cannot live our life to its full purpose, use, service, or worth. This connection helps to reflect upon our work and our pursuits and match them against the life we want to live, thus ensuring the best use of the highest expression of life’s hidden power in man’s capacity for conscious thought and action. The more aware a man becomes of his role in the scheme of things in relation to the kind of world in which his lot is cast, the more the power of his life finds its fulcrum, and more he is able to put his life to better and more effective use and service.

When I survey my own life’s course, I can say that I have lived reasonably happily. Yet as years have rolled on, probably engendering a greater ‘self-awareness’, I do feel that somewhere deep down in my heart exists a void that remains to be filled. So I ask myself what is it that –in addition to endeavouring to be a good son, father etc. and a decent human being- should happen for me to feel convinced that I have not lived in vain. At times I wish that someone with greater insight into my being could appear and reveal to me the answer. Even though in the economic field we now have ever increasing access to such help through coaching, mentoring, training etc, unfortunately, such a recipe is usually not available to us in the matters of heart and soul. “In the sweat of thy brow thou must earn daily bread” is mostly the ruling in the matters spiritual. Despite sages’ immense teachings over the centuries for securing our moral and spiritual reinforcement there is no easy way to it, as often our critical faculties make it difficult to assume the attitude prescribed by simple, unsophisticated, and usually black and white life of Faith. While we still crave religion for emotional satisfaction, its ability to explain our world has significantly eroded in the face of scientific and intellectual advancement. The progression of knowledge and liberation of thought have combined to disrupt the functional unity of the spiritual apparatus of life thus making it increasingly difficult for us to accept uncritically the assumptions that are inherent in a religion. One such piece of dogma is the prophesy of a Messiah to appear in most philosophies of Faith according to which a Messiah will arrive to eternally annihilate the forces of darkness and thereafter the Mankind will witness a reign of unity (within its fold, claims every faith), peace, love, and true well being. While I have neither the ability nor the intention to comment on the metaphysical legitimacy (or otherwise) of such a belief, I cannot suppress the temptation to mention that, often, such belief breeds inaction and complacency and fosters an attitude of quietism, making it easy for us to sit and wait for someone to arrive who would transform the world and solve all our problems. This view diminishes the man’s obligation to strive and sacrifice for realising higher ends for this world hereunder. I believe that one’s moral and spiritual regeneration in this age of ours can only occur through one’s conscious effort and initiative to define and fulfil one’s mission on earth. What counts the most in this respect is a craving to grow by outgrowing one’s limitations, which enables us to expand our consciousness to a level where it begins to mirror the universal goodness. While we may not become a Tolstoy, Einstein, Mandela, or Gates, where an individual virtually becomes a part of the Cosmic Spirit, we can definitely make progress in improving the landscape of our inner being while striving to consciously playing our role in making this world better than we inherited it in our respective situations. The progress in this respect rests on individual effort alone and any external aid is of little consequence because in most situations in life we know the way but have to be morally prepared and inwardly advanced to harness the will and energy to follow its path. The fact that the course of time is absolutely irreversible and our portion of it cruelly limited casts upon us a duty to exploit the present to its fullest and to be constantly mindful and vigilant in abiding by the course of conduct chosen by us to define ‘a life well lived’.

It may be said that in discussing above my conception of a life well lived I seem possessed by the objective of personal perfection in consonance with the universal scheme of things and have not taken notice of the importance of realizing the collective objectives of an enterprise or a society. That may be a valid criticism but I believe that only the individuals who are well integrated in their inner growth and outer adjustment can truly make the society and the organizations better. Individual growth is primary to all human growth. Individual growth fosters peace and modifies the obsession with money and power as it alone can redeem the individual from the grip of his baser impulses. The forces that change society and business are released by the liberated individual acting in isolation. For example, the world of business is transformed by individuals like Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Gates, Zuckerberg and not by slick corporate rats. The contributions of such individuals are akin to beholding the light as suggested by Plato in his parable of the Cave in Republic.

 

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