Part III: So You Say You Want to Know Yourself? Thoughts on Examining Your Life

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In the last two posts I offered a set of questions — hypothetical choices — designed to help you think about your values. The first piece of writing was devoted to the complete list of 13. The second one offered you my personal answers to the initial seven of these, with no suggestion that my responses were better than yours might be. So, if you are familiar with the previous publications I suggest you scroll down to #8 on this one, where I will give you my thoughts on those I didn’t get to a few days ago. Those who haven’t read first seven answers, however, might wish to start with #1 here:

1. Someone asks for a year off your life — a transfer of 365 days from you to him in return for money. Would you accept? How much money seems sufficient? The old Twilight Zone TV series presented an interesting story involving such an offer: The Self-Improvement of Salvatore Ross. I can imagine circumstances in which I would take the offer. If I needed money to save the life of someone I loved, for example. Otherwise, probably not. But then, I am financially comfortable. Were I not, perhaps I’d be more inclined to accept. I’d not care to get a bigger house, win status, or travel the world. Nor would I give the year for any charity short of enough dollars to change thousands of lives. There are limits to my altruism.

2. If you could trade one extra year of good health and youth for one less year of longevity, would you make the exchange? Everything else being equal (which is never the case) this is attractive. Pain can be instructive if you are young enough and the suffering is defeated. Living longer, at least into an old age suffused with agony, has no appeal for me. Leon Kass, physician and philosopher, however, argues that discomfort and gradual loss of our abilities combine to make us less resistant and more grateful for the release provided by death. Note that my answers to all of these questions are personal. You might well offer ideas at least as worthy and persuasive, perhaps more faith-based.

3. What would you die for? My post What Would You Kill For? includes many thoughtful responses I received from friends and acquaintances.

4. What would you kill for? The same essay deals with answers to this query as well.

5. Imagine you are given the opportunity to improve your physical beauty by 25% or your intelligence by a similar percentage. One or the other, just by saying so. Please discuss your decision and justify it. Were I a deformed young man, enhanced beauty would be difficult to resist. The importance of what meets the eye, of course, depends on the individual’s self-image and how much else recommends him to others in the mating game. The hand of time steals pulchritude from us all, a dime’s worth here, a nickel’s worth there, until at last those who once possessed surpassing beauty often sustain the most damaging psychological losses. We witness what some will buy from surgeons to fight the clock. The world pressures women more than men with regard to appearance, another consideration. At this point in my life, however, I’d take 25% more intelligence, being without an outsized vanity regarding how my externals are judged. Yet I wonder if the added cognitive burst might then separate me from friends and loved ones, literally change my thinking, our mutuality, and increase their discomfort in my presence. The value of relationships means more to me than becoming Einstein. Had I been given the offer of a bigger brain in my school years, however, I’d likely have accepted. We tend to think of ourselves as a kind of unitary everlasting whole, despite the changes we go through outside and inside. For a number of the questions in this essay, consider whether you would answer the same way when youthful, in middle-age, and in old age.

6. You are offered the chance to live one day over again. A “do-over.” Which 24-hours would you choose, if any? Describe what led you to this determination. My first thoughts here were focused on my youth, when confidence and self-assertion were wanting. On the other hand, life worked out before long. Moreover, any edge won with increased bravado would have been temporary, or (as Rosaliene Bacchus commented in response to the original post) might have altered the course of events in ways I didn’t predict. For example, had I been more masterly with some young woman in my single days, perhaps I wouldn’t have met and married my wonderful wife, produced our two great daughters, etc. No, I’d let the opportunity for a “do-over” for the chance of self-advancement pass by, but take advantage of it with respect to someone I hurt. My answer to question #10, based on regret, offers the details.

7. A genie will give you the ability to relive one day of your life just as it happened, without change. Which would you choose? Explain. My post What Memory Would You Take To Eternity? describes a heavenly reward consisting of living forever in a single, precious, blissful moment. I chose the instant I treasured most and treasure still, described therein. However, if I had 24-hours to live over again, I’d probably conjure up my father when I was a small boy, maybe three. He created a pretend radio show for me using the nozzle of our vacuum cleaner (hose attached) as a mock microphone. We played different parts, at least as the story was related to me much later. Though I lived it, I own no memory of the event. I’d like to visit him again in the fizzing sparkle of his relative youth, when his heart fairly burst with love and pride in his first born. The pictures of my dad with me show how overwhelmingly happy he was, beside himself with joy. I remember my own experience of this dad role with my children and watch it duplicated today whenever I go over to the home of my youngest daughter and son-in-law Keith with their wonderful boy — my grandson, of course.

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8. The gift of immortality on earth is yours — to live forever, never aging beyond your current age. Do you want it? Check out this post: the downside of immortality as seen by a werewolf. Put simply, eternal existence changes everything you think you know about your values and the way you are inclined to live. Much that is precious is given worth because it is either in short supply or temporary. Never-ending life makes choices less important since there is always more time try another path. I’ll take this life, thanks. I want a life where my decisions have meaning.

9. In your travels you come upon a fountain of youth enabling eternal earthly life at whatever chronological age you choose, with only the knowledge and experience you possessed at that time. To what moment would you return? Might you decide not to drink from the fountain? Tell me more. If you believe in “necessity” — that events happen and actions are taken in a predictable and unalterable way — then you’d be returning to a life identical to the one you had, like a TV rerun. Moreover, as an immortal you’d also have to deal with the problems of a never-ending life mentioned in the downside of immortality. Perhaps a more interesting question is whether you’d like to start over from an early age with the only guarantee being that your life course would be different, not a repetition of what you lived. I find this intriguing. I can imagine other careers, reconsidered decisions, a changed set of relationships and chance meetings — perhaps dozens of alternative ways to reach a life worth living. This isn’t meant to suggest dissatisfaction with my history — rather, curiosity. But you know what they say about curiosity and cats!

10. Who is the one person living to whom you most owe an apology? Why haven’t you expressed your regret? An old girlfriend with the initials MC is the person. Really, a sweet young woman when I knew her. I dated MC for several weeks in graduate school (she was not a schoolmate) and I left the relationship angry, not because of any betrayal by her, but due to my own immaturity and selfishness. Curiously, I didn’t think I needed to apologize until years later and recognized my fault. I suppose this is a commentary on how one’s view of events alters with time, circumstance, and self-evaluation. By then there was little chance of finding her short of hiring a detective. We often don’t know whether our impact on someone else is lasting unless we are told. The rear view mirror fails to inform you of how a lover’s future turned out. Sometimes he or she doesn’t remember the event at all. I hope MC was either less hurt than I believed or healed quickly and completely; and that her memory of me vanished with the wound.

11. Imagine you can live the fantasy of succeeding in everything you try and being continuously satisfied by the progress of your life. It will be experienced as absolutely real, even though you will be in a chair connected to a machine keeping you healthy, supplying you with food, and fooling you into believing you are elsewhere. Alternatively, you can try to make your way in the real world as you do today. Which would you opt for? This hypothetical machine and the “pleasure-button” I will describe in question #12 are “thought experiments” derived from the three sources: 1. The “Experience Machine” imagined by philosopher Robert Nozick. 2. The examples present in the novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and 3. The Matrix. The real question here is what choice you will make when given the opportunity, not after being plugged into the machine or starting to press the seductive “pleasure button” in item #12. Once you choose either of these experiences you are hooked. In the first example, you immediately believe it is real and therefore don’t even think of returning to real life. In response to question #12, you become addicted to the ecstasy within your reach (pun intended), better than any drug. Underlying these queries are others: How much do you value genuine achievement (as opposed to the false belief of successful accomplishment, like getting an A on a test because you cheated)? Are you responsible to make the real world better, even if only in small ways? Would you rather strive for actual (imperfect) relationships or interact with fantasy friends and partners? Do you believe life allows us to achieve a sustained stratospheric level of happiness or that pleasure and satisfaction only come in inconsistent bits? Those of you familiar with my writing can guess my answers.

12. You are offered a risk-free, brief surgery permitting you to give yourself ecstatic pleasure by pressing a button whenever you want: the most powerful mood-changer ever invented. The marvelous joy beyond joy lasts only 10 minutes, so if you want more you have to press repeatedly. Do you accept this “gift?” See my answer to #11.

13. You are given a trip on a time machine, enabling you to go back to the moment in history in which you’d prefer to live, in whatever place you’d like, though you’d remain your current age. The journey is one-way — no coming back. Moreover, you can bring only one other person with you. Would you do so and with whom? To what historical place and time? Elaborate your deliberation process. My first concern is whether I’d be open to losing all the relationships I have, but one. The answer is no. If I were willing, however, the question then becomes which moment in time would be superior in fascination to the current one? A different way to view this is to see the choice as a kind of test, where the qualities needed to have a satisfying life might be more necessary in one historical epoch than another. Finally, consider this comment made by Al to the previous blog:

I think my soul belongs to the depression era. My soul feels comfort in hardship. My mind wants a simpler life with less advancement and technology. I need people and to connect. So, even though life would be hard, I believe my tortured soul would feel comfortable. I enjoy working hard and reaping the benefits. This would force me to not sit tight and work. People were the entertainment. I would like that. I’d be forced to live in reality. No work, no pay.

I hope this set of uncommon questions has been amusing and perhaps, personally informative. They’ve touched on the value of time, the question of whether you can create a scale to weigh time and experience in terms of dollars, what you think about money, the importance of memory, the place of regret in any life, the danger of addiction, the benefit of relationships, whether you’d prefer reality or an escape to fantasy, the role of apology, the way we change over time, the difficulty of predicting what will be important to us in the future, etc.

As I said in the first part of this three-part series, no grading, no right or wrong answers. You alone are the judge of your own responses. It is your life.

The top painting is The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve. The second is called Cain Fleeing From the Wrath of God. Both are by William Blake and sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

6 thoughts on “Part III: So You Say You Want to Know Yourself? Thoughts on Examining Your Life

  1. Dr. Stein, this has been an intriguing exercise into self-examination and self-knowledge. For me, going back in time would only have value if it were possible to change the course of our current self-destructive growth.

    When it comes to apologies (#10), it would be difficult to identify the person to whom I most owe an apology. During the course of my life, I’ve had serious conflicts with a number of individuals. One of them, whom I will call SME, stands out. When SME and I went our separate ways in 1976 – she later moved to the USA and I to Brazil – I never had the opportunity to resolve our differences. Last year, when a mutual friend in the USA gave SME my telephone number, I finally had the opportunity to apologize and ask her forgiveness.

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  2. Re #13 – I’m with you. Taking only one person is unacceptable. I have grown too fond of my spouse, my two children, their beloveds, my siblings, and my nieces and nephews not to mention a few very close friends…. to leave them all behind save one? Not interested.

    As for a time in history, I agree with Al. I think the Depression era days might suit me well. My parents came of age during the Depression and had many comments to make about those days. But the days seemed simpler, less chaotic, and more connected. But then we would need to consider racism, sexism and all those other isms that human beings are more aware of now than then. So there’s that….I also think about any kind of life that allows for a great deal of solitude and time in the majestic outdoors. That’s a hard life but there is something so renewing about life near the ocean or in the mountains (a life that does not include traffic and stores and noise). Think much of North America in mid 1800’s?

    At the moment I think my own best years were when my children were small. They were the best part of my life. At that time, as well, I worked with kids in public education and found the work to be rewarding on so many levels. Would I go back 30 years to those years? Even for one day (#7)? Would there be any point in playing it over again? I think I knew, even then, what a lucky person I was to have a loving spouse, kids at home who brightened up my days, work that inspired me, and a genuine community in which to live. So would I go back? Again, what would be the point? I wish I could somehow capture some of the spirit of those days and infuse my current life with that joie de vivre but I haven’t figured out how to do that yet.

    Back to #2 (If you could trade one extra year of good health and youth for one less year of longevity, would you make the exchange?) – absolutely the answer would be yes. I dread the decline of my health. I have a hard time noticing already the decline in energy (how did I manage all those responsibilities from 30 years ago?) and the increase in physical limitations. I’m not interested in being decrepit. At this point, I would prefer to leave the planet sooner and in decent physical health (as my father did) rather than later and in serious physical and cognitive decline (as my mother did).

    I’ve been thinking about #1 (Someone asks for a year off your life — a transfer of 365 days from you to him in return for money. Would you accept? How much money seems sufficient? ) and have decided that my answer is yes. Now, this is largely b/c I am neither young nor particularly happy right now so leaving isn’t a big deal. My town desperately needs a new library. The library is a thriving space but there isn’t enough space. If I could trade 365 days for the construction of a new library for the town then , absolutely and with great enthusiasm I would do that. No, I would not have been willing to do that 30 or even 10 years ago but now? Yes.

    About the apology question… you know, I don’t think there really is a person to whom I owe an apology. I have always been pretty good about owning up to my mistakes and trying to clean them up. There is a person from 40+ years ago that I would like to talk to again but not really to apologize so much as to clarify what was going on at the time. I don’t know where he is these days but I’ve tried unsuccessfully to find him on the internet. If I were to find him, it would take a lot of nerve to contact him and I’m not sure he would even want to see me but I wouldn’t mind having the chance to meet up with him.

    Thanks for posting these thoughtful questions. Thanks, as well, for sharing your own responses.

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    • Thanks for taking this self-exploration game as seriously as you did, JT. As many public intellectuals have commented, we seem to be living in a period of nostalgia that has influenced the politics of our time. Nostalgia is almost inevitable but, as you suggest, more dangerous because of the neglected underside of our memory. I was pleased to see that you grasped your own “golden age” in the moment it was happening. I’m hoping you find another. Good luck!

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  3. Just curious…why does it say I posted that answer at 11:28 pm on August 6 when I posted it at 4:28pm PDT . The time difference isn’t that much between the West Coast and Chicago….. weird.

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  4. I’ve noticed this, as well, JT. The clock is off, but one adjusts.

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