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.

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

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In my last post I promised to give you my thoughts on the questions I posed about knowing yourself and examining your life. There were 13 in total, (superstitious anyone?). Here are the responses they prompted in me.

  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 pursue 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 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” pass by for the chance of self-advancement, 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.

That’s enough to ponder for now. Stay tuned, as my dad might have said in our imaginary radio days, for my take on questions eight through 13.

The top image is a work of Vladmir Grig called Who am I as sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Einstein on the Subject of What is Important

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Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

The above image is Professor Albert Einstein Visits the U.S. from The Scientific American 12:5 (1921), 482-485, on page 483. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What Would You Kill For?

 

What do you live for? What would you die for? What would you kill for?

Pretty interesting questions, you have to admit.

I heard them several days ago on an NPR broadcast of a 2008 documentary by Karen Michel called Live? Die? Kill? It was part of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. She asked those questions of a number of people within 30 miles of her home in Pleasant Valley, NY.

Michel’s interviews were face to face, all apparently very brief. I was intrigued. And so I tried my hand at an internet version of the same thing, emailing the questions to 80 people, requesting short answers, and guaranteeing the anonymity of their responses.

Who are these people? A very well-educated crowd with lots of graduate degrees, almost all urban-dwellers, few people of color, few who are gay; largely Jewish, Christian, and atheist/agnostic, with virtually no fundamentalists.

None of my patients, in case you were wondering.

Politics? Most are left of center. Also, the vast majority are over 50, although I did endeavor to include some in their 20s and 30s.  Still, this sample is in no way intended to represent any larger group. They exemplify the population of people who I knew well enough to think that they might give me answers. Take it for what it is.

Nearly all of the three dozen respondents took the task seriously. But two people did make a joke out of the last question. For example, one said he would kill for “being able to drive a golf ball 300 yards.”

At least, I’m hoping it was a joke.

Not everyone was certain of his or her answer, or even of the question:

Questions two and three are easy to answer:  I would die for or kill for my children. Question one is more difficult because I’m not sure exactly what you are asking?  Is it a question about the future and goals, the overall purpose of my life?  I’m not a very future oriented (or past oriented) person.  I live pretty much in the now (though a list of what I’m supposed to do is useful for achieving a good night’s sleep).

I don’t think I have any particular mission in life.  I live trying to do what needs to be done, to enjoy the world and to care for my loved ones.

Her husband also wasn’t sure about what precisely he lives for: “I don’t live for anything, I think. I live day-to-day, and try to do the things that are right and that make me and others happy.”

They sound well matched, don’t they? For them, questions of purpose don’t seem troublesome. But not everyone felt this way:

I wish I could say there is someone or something I would live or die for. This probably comes from being childless. When I was young, I would have answered this question with the name of my first husband… until he cheated and broke my heart.

Since I am a firm believer in not killing, including animals and even insects (except mosquitos trying to bite me), there is nothing I would kill for. The only time I could ever envision killing would be to kill myself. After a life of suffering from depression, there have been times when I concluded that suicide must always be an option for me.

The hardest question is “what do I live for?” I live because I am alive. I don’t live for anyone or anything. Again, I think not having children influences my answer to this question.

A quite different response came from a woman whose return email to me embraced the task with particular enthusiasm; and whose answers confirmed a view of living that glories in ideas of freedom and spontaneity.

This sounds like fun! My pleasure:

1. I live for glee and pursue it shamelessly. Where do I find it? In the most unexpected places. How do I encounter it? Through my addiction to surprises and change, adventure, and risk.

2. I would die for love, I really would. What do I love? Innocence. I would immolate myself if I thought I could save purity, innocence and hope (faith).

3. I would kill out of despair, only for rage. What do I rage against? Naivety, blind stupidity that refuses pain or rejects unwelcome aspects of truth. If I saw such horror before me, I might kill myself out of despair at beholding my own projection.

One of the most interesting answers to the question “What do you live for?” was more like an item from a wish-list than practical guidance for day-to-day existence:

…Another part of me lives for the future — by hoping to recreate the past. The happiest days of my life were the summers of my youth, when aside from an hour of daily piano practice, I was free to ride my bike, play baseball, and do anything I pleased. Ever since, I’ve dreamed of having a “30 year summer.” The clock is ticking, but the math still works.

Frequent responses to the first two items mentioned the desire to learn, find “meaning,” leave a legacy, make a difference, the need to create, and the importance of religious/spiritual beliefs. I also received a number of comments indicating a willingness to die for one’s country or to combat evil or to preserve liberty; similarly, people who said they would kill in order to defend family, country, or themselves.

But quite a few respondents realized that saying that they hoped to do so did not mean that they actually would. And many thought that they would not want to kill under any circumstances.

Only one person seemed utterly certain about the capacity to kill and the reason to do it — because he had already done it: “I kill for food.”

For another, living is largely focused on self-satisfaction: “I live for the things that make me happy in life. Those things can be as simple as a sunset, watching a fire in my fireplace on a snowy night, the beach and the ocean, family, and friends to knowing that I have made a positive difference in someone’s life.”

Here is a thoughtful response to all three questions that is shaped, in part, by a particular set of life circumstances:

1. I live for my loved ones and especially my children – to spend time with them, learn from them, enjoy the growth and blossoming of younger ones and the wisdom of older ones. I also live for doing things that interest me, and for doing things to help others. And I live to learn, and to grow. Also, to read books and squeeze in a little writing. I live to see beautiful natural places…to try to be a good person and my best self. And I live to help my younger daughter (who is intellectually challenged) become more independent, and to help my older daughter have some adult time when she is not responsible for her sister. (She will be her sister’s guardian once I die.)

2. I have never thought of what I would die for, and have never been in a situation where I really needed to answer this question. So in imagining what I might consider being worth dying for, I hope I would die for justice, and if it were necessary to give my life to “do the right thing” for someone else. I hope I would die to save the life of my children, and to save any children really. I probably would die trying to save the life of any of my friends, my family, my dog – anyone in distress, really. I hope I would die trying to stop someone from doing evil to others.

3. Hmmm….doesn’t say what kind of creature I’d “need” to kill. I imagine if it were necessary for me to kill an animal to survive, I might be able to do that. Might not. I hope I would kill a person who was in the process of wreaking physical destruction on others, though I’m not sure how I might do that. I have a hard time imagining any other situation when I would kill.

It is interesting that virtually no one in this group of very accomplished (but mostly anonymous) people mentioned material things, money, status, or power. Only one person stated that she lived for “success” and no one wrote the word “career” except to disqualify it.

Two respondents identified “family” as the answer to each query. I asked one, a professional performer, for a further explanation:

1. What do you live for?

I could say music, but then I would be lying. Making music is one of the highlights of my life. I feel privileged that am able to do something I love tremendously. I am passionate about performing — very much so. But I do not live for it. I live for my family. They are the ones that matter more than anything in my life.  I live for the children I do not yet have. I am extremely fulfilled and cared for by a loving husband. And I love and enjoy my close relationships with my immediate family. I live for them.

2. What would you die for?

Any number of scenarios, but they boil down to: if it would save someone I loved, then I would die trying to save them.

3. What would you kill for?

A perfect body? Oodles of money? A longer life? A genie? Never aging? Maybe, but probably not. Only if I was protecting my family can I ever imagine doing such a thing.

For the musician’s husband, it was equally simple — the last word on the subject:

Immediately I thought “love” would answer all three questions.

If you’d like to hear the radio program that prompted this essay, go to: Live? Die? Kill?

Thanks to all of you who responded to my request for answers and to any others who might wish to add their own answers to these three questions in the Comments section below.

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The top image is The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve by William Blake, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom painting is The Kiss by Gustav Klimt from 1907/8, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.