I can think of no richer question than: what is a good life?
The past few years, I have been writing “Annual Reviews” and setting down goals for my life. But how do I know that these are the right goals?
A lot of the time, my goals come from society. From advertising. From what my peers want. From what my family thinks is best for me. From books I read and podcasts I listen to.
There is another way to approach the “good life” question, a way that is perhaps more timeless and steady: philosophy. Below is my current view of what it means to live a good life, as a small human Dan in a vast cosmos.
- Welcome to the universe, a fractal tree of experiments
- Philosophy defines the valuable, the “good,” branches on the fractal tree
- To live a good life, we must actively choose our values
- Embodying values is an active process
- The man, the lion, and the monster
- Beware prestige
- Reduce inner conflict and align to reality for inner peace
- Follow the compass of integrity
- My leap of faith: A good life is possible
- My two core values are kindness and gratitude
- Spirituality is connection to the Source
- To be list
Let’s dive in!
Welcome to the Universe, a fractal tree of experiments
One way to look at the universe is as a fractal tree of different experiments:
First, there was the big bang, that gave rise to many celestial objects: planets, stars, black holes. Each of these objects is a different experiment on the tree of chemistry and physics. For example, Jupiter has very different chemistry from Venus.
One of these planets, Earth, developed life: another grand experiment. The tree of biology was born.
After billions of years of evolution, a branch on the tree of life was born that was particularly intelligent. They called themselves Homo Sapiens and took over much of the planet. Also a grand experiment, never-been-done-before. The human branch of the tree of life was no more or less special than the branch of cockroaches, which the Homo Sapiens despise. And it is no more or less special than the branch of trilobites, which had gone extinct millions of years ago.
The human branch developed many different sub-branches: each with different skin colors, body types, facial structures, cultures. Each human group was a different experiment.
Within each group, there were different individuals with different lives. These lives could be incredibly different from each other.
At every level — planet, species, tribe, individual — there is a branching fractal of different experiments.
Philosophy defines the valuable, the “good,” branches of the fractal tree
In the absolute sense, there is nothing “good” or “bad” about different arrangements of matter in the universe. There is nothing in principle better about Earth compared to Venus. Yet we humans can, and I think must, make such value judgements when it comes to life.
Take Mel Brooks. This guy is 95 and still able to give a damn good interview. Still able to sing with humor and pathos. Now ponder Joseph Mengele, a sadist. Mengele presided over the murder of millions, performed cruel and deadly experiments on his fellow humans. One of these men grew circuits of humor and compassion in his brain, the other grew sadism and callousness.
Mengele and Brooks’ lives are two different experiments. It is a value judgement to call Brooks’ life “good” and Mengele’s life “bad.” I would argue that we must make such a judgement. To not make it, to deem both of their lives equal, is to succumb to nihilism.
The “point” of philosophy as I see it, is to look at the fractal tree of all possible lives I could live, and to decide what kind of life is valuable, good.
To live a good life, we must actively choose our values
The function of socialization, I think, is to box us in. If we’re not careful, we can lose ourselves in social expectations: we can wake up at age 40 doing a very specific job, living in a very specific way, that is largely determined by the blueprint of society.
I think of our brains as icebergs:
Below the surface is our conditioning. These are all the social rules that we’ve absorbed, which we are unconscious of, and which drive our behavior. Above the surface is what we’re conscious of, what we can change.
We become more free by consciously choosing our values, and striving to embody them. The below-the-surface conditioning can be an obstacle to conscious living.
In my own life, this is demonstrated with my relationship with Judaism. I can remember getting reprimanded for eating jelly dinosaurs while a student at religious school. The jellies were not allowed because the gelatin came from boiled pig bones. At the time I was reprimanded, I felt shame about the violation of the Kosher law. But now that I think about it, I can think of nothing more wrong with eating pig than other animals.
For many years, I treated Judaism as a set of rigid rules to “get right.” Nowadays, I see Judaism as a well of practices to draw from, and remix to fit my truth. I’m working to find the things in Judaism which align with my values, and let go of the things which don’t. My priority is now not fitting in with an orthodox version of Judaism, but customizing Judaism to fit my values.
Embodying values is an active process
Therapy and single transformative experiences (like ayahuasca ceremonies) can take us only so far along the path to healing. To truly actualise change, you have to engage in the work of making new choices every day.Nicole LePera, How to do the work
I had this post-it up in my bathroom for a while:
It’s very possible to have the value of “kindness” written in a notebook somewhere or even up on your vision board, but still not treat yourself or others kindly. Life is made out of days: moments with people, conversations, actions, choices big and small. As Matthew McConoughey put it: the record button is on right now.
So, we have to show up. We have to do the work to transform our abstract values into real-life actions. “Don’t explain your philosophy, embody it,” said the wise Epictetus.
The psychiatrist Phil Stutz says that life has three characteristics: pain, uncertainty, and constant work. By constant work I think he means the work of living out our values. We don’t get a break, even when we’re on vacation or we’re tired or we’ve retired. There isn’t a course we can purchase, or a therapist we can hire, who will make everything in life magically awesome. Sometimes I catch myself thinking this way and wanting to spend thousands of dollars on some guru. But in truth, we don’t ever FLAND. We never reach the destination of 100% enlightened and happy. All we can do is keep walking the path towards our values.
Sometimes, life seems to happen by rote: a predictable pattern of grocery shopping followed by taking out the trash.
This way of looking at life is a lie.
In reality, in every moment, there is a choice.
The psychiatrist Victor Frankl demonstrated that even when everything external was taken away from him, he still had the ability to choose what he thought about.
Another psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, wrote about asking patients who are unhappy with their lives, “Why don’t you move to California?” This was a gimmick that served to remind patients of their freedom in every moment.
William James asked himself a more stark question: why not commit suicide? He didn’t ask this to provoke depression, he asked it to underscore that in every moment, he is choosing life.
In every moment, we are choosing certain values over others.
Reflection and action are two necessary parts of a feedback loop, a process whose goal it is to make sure we are living in alignment with our values. Action is often the harder part, because it requires us to face uncertainty in the pursuit of our values.
The man, the lion, and the monster
Plato said that within us, there are three parts:
- the man, who seeks truth
- the lion, who seeks social acceptance
- the monster, who seeks pleasure.
I was jogging the other day and came to the gate of a beautiful college campus. There was an attendant at the booth.
“Are you a student?” the attendant called.
“Yes,” I said, and ran into the college. I still look like a student! I thought to myself.
Then, realizing that I’d lied, I instantly felt guilty. The man was not happy, but the monster was thrilled. I would get to run in a cool new place. Wheeeee! Pleasure!
A split-second later, my inner lawyer chimed in: “Well, I am a student…of Buddhism…And besides, I don’t have any bad intentions…”
Just like that, my ego started defending myself against the feeling of guilt. I started spinning a web of lies. Now that I think about it, lying to the attendant wasn’t as bad as the lying to myself. The inner conflict between the man (who thought lying was wrong) and the monster (who wanted the pleasure of exploration) caused me to dissociate from myself.
After talking about my feelings, I realized that my true feeling was guilt. Was the pleasure worth the guilt? I’m still pondering that one. But I do know that getting in touch with my real feeling (in this case guilt) was valuable. Feelings are clues to what is really going on in my psyche.
Reduce inner conflict and align to reality for inner peace
I’ve always loved travelling, especially to see nature. A few years ago, I learned from a podcast that flying emits lots of greenhouse gases, which disrupt the very nature I am interested in preserving. I could have shut the podcast off, but there is a deep need within me to know the truth. So I kept listening.
My man was not happy. There was no doubt about it: flying was bad for the environment. For a while, I stopped flying. But then I realized that this was limiting. My man was happy, but my beast was not. And after a while, my man became less happy too. What perspectives, connections, meaning and truth was I missing out on by foregoing flights?
So, I sought out other folks with environmental interest, and started writing a newsletter to process my eco-feelings. I still have many painful conflicts between my man, my lion, and my monster in the realm of environmentalism. But giving myself space to process these conflicts, and finding community of like-minded folks, has given me a greater sense of piece.
Inner peace is when the man, the lion, and the monster are all fed by the life you are leading. But this isn’t a passive state and it is never perfectly achieved. It requires constant work to get closer and closer to it.
I had been bullied throughout my youth, and had a chronic feeling of not being socially worthy. So, I developed a strategy to “achieve” social validation: I would study so hard in High School that I would become valedictorian. In my high school, good grades were prestigious. If I couldn’t be loved for being me, then I would be loved for achievement.
In retrospect, I realize that this drive was driven mostly by shame, rather than stoke for studying. Yes, I love learning, but if I had my druthers my learning would be unbounded, rather than obsessed with acing tests.
I can still remember the day I got the envelope in the mail. It was raining and the front door to my house was locked. My hands were shaking as I tore open the envelope. There it was, the box that said Class Rank. Inside that box was the number 1.
I felt a buzz of dopamine.
Then, an immediate let-down.
I stood there, all alone, watching the rain.
This thing I had been doing — studying like a maniac for three years — did not bring me what I truly wanted: friendship and acceptance.
This strategy had failed.
The philosopher Rene Girard thought that mimesis is the main thing that defines humans. Some people are put on a pedestal by a community for certain attributes (like good grades), and others want those attributes, not because they are fulfilling, but because they are prestigious (like being valedictorian).
I know that I can’t really become less mimetic, but I can choose to hang out in less mimetic communities, where people are more driven by authentic fulfillment than prestige.
Follow the compass of integrity
In college, I made a movie called Magic Julius. The day after it was screened, I felt this incredible sense of inner peace. I had spent the entire past year working on the film, from script, to casting, to shooting, to editing. Now, it was done and screened. It felt like completion.
I felt fulfilled not by the movie itself, but because I had “gone my own way.”
The movie was not fun to work on. The monster was not happy. While, I did enjoy editing and writing at times, but there was stress and conflict at nearly every point in the process. At one point, an angry actor picked me up by my shirt and pinned me against a wall. At another point, a lead actor got sick at the last minute, and I had to recast her. That was the most stressful moment in the whole shoot. I felt like the world was imploding. I started running with no plan. I just ran, ran, ran, to get away from it all.
Making the movie was authentic to me because I had always been interested in film. I made in-camera home movies with my brother, growing up. I watched an interview with the Coen Brothers at the end of high school and realized that there was such a job as “director.” I instantly wanted to pursue filmmaking in college. I was sick of doing what I was “supposed to do,” I wanted to pursue my true interest. And I did.
I realized, eventually, that I didn’t want to pursue film as a career. Nonetheless, it was meaningful to me to go down the movie path. When I switched back to medicine a few years later, that was also a decision I made truly on my own, in integrity with myself.
My leap of faith: a good life is possible
I agree with the stoics and Viktor Frankl that we have limited control over many of the winds that may blow, but we do have control over how we respond. Even if I am left without limbs like the black night from Monte Python, I have a choice in how I see my situation. I can respond to every moment by embodying my values. Embodying my values will make me have a good life.
My two core values are kindness and gratitude
My two core values are kindness and gratitude.
Kindness (a.k.a. Service / Showing up)
For me, kindness is can be represented by a teacup (see the picture above). There are three components to kindness, as I see it:
- The desire to relieve suffering. Suffering is represented by the crack in the teacup. I had a moment in life when a friend really showed up for me. I was going through a really hard time, and he held my hand and told me it was going to be OK. At that moment, that simple action, him showing up for me, meant the world. I seek to repay this gift. People are going through hard times, all over the world, and they often feel alone. True friendship means showing up. I want to show up for people in life.
- The wish for joy. Joy is the tea that fills the cup. I seek to serve people by increasing their joy, through humor, and creating joyful experiences: cooking for people, creating rituals, giving compliments, spreading good vibes all around.
- The desire to grow my empathy. Empathy is represented by the emptiness of the cup, open to deep listening.
Kindness is roughly synonymous with real love, in my view. The word “love” is confusing, though, because it gets used in all sorts of other ways. Here’s a glossary of positive feels that are not love, but to which the “love” word often gets applied:
- Liking — positive regard towards others, enjoyment, admiration. Seeing others, in the words of improv, as geniuses, poets, artists.
- Limerence — the state of romantic obsession/infatuation.
- Need-fulfilment — humans have needs for intimacy (seeing others and being seen) and belonging (feeling part of a group).
When I was a junior in college, on a cold Valentine’s day in 2007, I went to a Sonic Youth show in a romantic depression. I had spent the past semester in Australia obsessed with an unavailable woman. I thought I would never experience “love.”
At the show, I met a woman who had travelled to New Haven from Brooklyn for the show. Chemistry ignited us, and the next year was pure exhilaration. We travelled together almost every weekend. We crashed a bonfire party in rural Vermont and drank beer that came from a tap drilled into a tree. We talked about our lives. We laughed at turkeys clumsily falling through thick snow. It was pure magic.
But when the relationship rubber hit the road, I got scared. Scared to have her meet my parents. Scared to move in with her. Confusion about what I would do for my career sapped my attention for romance. She broke up with me. The twelve-year age gap between us probably had something to do with it.
I felt like I got punched in the stomach. I shut down, romantically, for about six years.
I was convinced that this romance, by far the most intense of my life, was love. But was it? It had elements of love, interwoven with liking, limerence, and need fulfillment. I’m pretty sure that I wanted her to be happy and free of suffering. But did I really want to understand her? Did I really have an empty teacup? I’m not sure. At times I did, and at times I probably didn’t.
It seems to me that all I can strive to do is get better at real love, now that I know what it is. Liking, limerence and need fulfillment can be good things too, but kindness/loving service seems to be more in my control than the others.
When I was in sixth grade, a bully would ask me, repeatedly on the bus: “Do you have any friends?”
I couldn’t answer him.
He’d pick at the wound: “I want you to make one friend today…”
At the end of the day, he’d ask me, “Did you make any friends today?” I would stay silent, and melt into a pool of tears and snot.
I now realize that the bully was using friends as a yardstick for social status, a yardstick to beat me with. He did not know the meaning of true friendship, which is rooted in liking, love, and intimacy. Over the years I’ve gone on to cultivate some true friends.
One such friend is my high school English teacher John. We have a lot to talk about (in the realms of literature and philosophy). There is a mutual desire for our thriving. And we show up for each other, in different small ways, though we don’t live in the same place.
I believe that that friendship is the basis of any real relationship. Friendship is a two-way acknowledgement of humanity. It is a commitment to really show up: with care, presence and empathy. An empty teacup is a high bar.
Gratitude is about being deeply thankful to the universe for my existence. An attitude of “I got the lottery ticket, I won consciousness! Thank you!” I agree with Stephen Colbert that we don’t get a “Life B” without suffering, so we have the choice to be grateful for life as it is (including the suffering) or not.
I wear a bracelet of beautiful stones to remind myself that life is beautiful and amazing (pictured above). I love the framing of the Jewish Prayer Dayenu: It would have been enough. If I don’t get X, Y, Z, in life, then mere existence would have been enough.
I have spent large parts of my life in stuckness, in isolated rooms where I’m cycling through the same negative thoughts, ad infinitum. Here are some flavors of stuckness:
- Catastrophizing — visualizing negative future outcomes in my head.
- Complaining — about the past or my present situation without doing anything to change it.
- Hopelessness — Believing that my life is forever doomed because of something I did or something that happened in the past. As David Foster Wallace says, “the gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
- Addiction — chasing momentary positive feelings.
The way out of all these forms of stuckness, the way to find flow, I think, is to re-commit to living my values in the here and now. To go back to my leap of faith. Not to deny pain and suffering, but to experience the negative fully while also committing to my values.
Spirituality is connection to the Source
I was raised Jewish, which taught that the Jewish people were chosen by God. I don’t see why God would divide humans up in this way. Why should God love the Jews, and not the Hindus? Why should God love humans above animals? Why would God create all these different groups, that all believe their God is the true one?
In my view, all of the universe, in totality, is God of the Source. The sun, and the bees, and the flowers, and the tomato plants are all expressions of the Source. These are my parents too.
I am immensely grateful to the universe, for creating me. I feel connected to all its elements. God is in everything.
There was a point of my life when I thought I was special, that I could cheat death. I was studying abroad in Australia, and would go to dance parties with my friends. I would see everyone dancing, but visualize them as future skeletons. Don’t they know they will perish? Why aren’t they working on curing aging? Why are they involved in such frivolous pursuits?
I did take my desire to cure aging seriously, and this led me to a conference in LA called “Ending Aging.” The people I met there struck me as a bit odd. I couldn’t describe it exactly, but there was something off about the whole vibe.
I kept up my desire to end aging, though, and this was a big part of my motivation to go to medical school. As I progressed through the pipeline of training, and got to see real patients, I came to a slow realization: I would die, and that was OK. Just in the last week, I’ve seen the “God taketh away” part of life’s equation: a pharmaceutical executive rendered bedbound by Guillain-Bare Syndrome. A software engineer went mountain biking and took a small spill, which caused compression of his spinal cord. A man in his 50s has a severe form of dementia.
What keeps me from experiencing such loss? Am I special? Is there a glass wall that separates me from suffering?
No. I don’t think there is. I am made of the same stuff as my patients. I am vulnerable. “Why not me?” is a good way to see suffering. Eventually, the angel of suffering and death will come for me, just as it does for all people and animals. I understand this intellectually, but I’m sure it’ll be a different thing entirely when it happens.
Suffering is a basic fact of life. We come from the earth, and to the earth we must return. We don’t even make “special” compost, we just make “pretty good” compost.
An awareness of death enhances my sense of spirituality, because it enhances my sense of connection. “Does her shit not stink?” a friend once remarked. We all poop, food goes through all our bowels and gets transformed. And in the same way, we will all be transformed by death and go back to the Source, to be turned into other things. As Pink Floyd sang, “After all, we’re only ordinary men.” This feeling of ordinariness is profoundly connecting. No one is special.
To Be List
A “to be” list is just as important as a “to do” list. Some things I strive to be:
- A competent, compassionate, helpful doctor + teacher (in Latin doctor = teacher)
- A steward of this earth
- A loving family member, partner, and friend
- Someone who improves his community
- Physically fit and healthy
- Grateful for the gift of this life
- Creative (a writer of poems + creator of rituals which celebrate existence)
Developing routines — an ecology of practices — to support the above, will be the work of my life.
Credit to the books The Good Life Method for inspiration for this entire post, and Think Like a Monk for the “to be” list.