Wednesday, August 19, 2009

What makes a life?

"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived."
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I am not sure I quite agree with Emerson's definition of success.

When someone dies, how does one judge the sum of a life?  When you read obituaries, there are usually lists of children and grandchildren left behind.  There is often a recounting of jobs and positions held. But what does this tell us about the person that lived?  

I have been writing and painting quite a bit lately.  And there is always this voice in my head that says that my work is meaningless unless it is one day consolidated and sold to a public.  I am a product of my society. I have been socialized to only find meaning in what can be commodified.  And this is a source of great anguish for me.  I like creating.  I like painting. I like writing.  I like taking photographs.  If I leave this life with an apartment full of journals, canvasses and photographs that have never been shared with a greater public, will that mean my life was unsuccessful?  Is there merit in the individual journey unwitnessed by others?  

The reality is that most of our journey goes unwitnessed in this life.  The greatest journey, the hero's journey, is taken within the mind, within the heart, and no one beyond the journeyer truly knows that experience.  We can create art, write books, leave behind children and companies and 'redeemed social conditions' but what does it all mean?  Is this what defines a life?  

Is it not the living of the life that makes all the difference?  And who can possibly judge that?  

tall penguin


secretlifeofgayle said...

I think that there is the living of the life, but also the living within the world. And that the two are endlessly intertwined. I don't take Emerson's quote as an exact definition of success or a list of what a life should entail, but an acknowledgement that our lives touch each other and touch this world. And that we should strive to leave this world that we touch a little better.

This does not mean martyrdom or an eternal quest for improvement (although for some it might mean that) but that we have an awareness of our impact on the world and, in full knowledge of that impact, we consciously navigate our actions. Not direct them necessarily to be of use for someone else (although we might do that), but in the awareness of a bigger picture.

Does this mean that all actions must be witnessed? No, I don't think that the publication of works makes them better or more valid than others, although publication may be the ultimate goal for some of your works. You take meaning from what your work is and find a balm in it. I think this is the ultimate way of achieving a type of inner peace...whether your work is art or raising children or developing theories. And in that way, your work becomes its own reward, not needing witness, bearing witness of what our life has been.

tall penguin said...

Hey there Gayle, thank you for these beautiful words. The balance of the living of the life and the living in the world is a fine art. It takes a lifetime to master methinks.

I love that there are no easy answers to these questions and yet there are. The answer is the one living through us each moment. It is personal and collective, within and without.

"You take meaning from what your work is and find a balm in it. I think this is the ultimate way of achieving a type of inner peace...whether your work is art or raising children or developing theories."

Yes. This is what I'm finding to be true more and more. There is a definite sense of peace circling my heart of late. There is a very succulent kind of rest that comes with the knowledge that one is engaged in a work (be it internal, external or both) that is meaningful from one's own perspective. When you no longer NEED the outside world's praise (although you may still seek it), there is a profound freedom unfolding.

It's funny. It still makes me feel incredibly squidgy to receive lengthy comments like this from readers. My immediate reaction is that the reader didn't understand what I was trying to say and is disagreeing with me. Thank you Gayle for pushing that particular button today. I realize that we are not disagreeing but exploring an issue that has many views and ways of expressing those views.

secretlifeofgayle said...

Yes, sometime it is a fine balance between appearing to say "I respect your feelings, but I have a different perspective to offer" vs "your feelings on this matter are wrong and here is why." Especially with the written word, when our tone is absent, the first can morph into the second in little to no time.

Oh, and I love the word squidgy.

Ganga Fondan said...

While pondering the same question years ago when I ran long and hard away from anyone who tried to tell me what a life well lived was. In a journal entry, my heart wrote:
"Let me internalize what is painful and ugly and with great strength draw something beautiful out of myself to put back in it's place." It was a time when tiger pictures covered my walls. :)

Luv ya,