What is it all about really – this life? What are we after? What are we searching for? Why do we so often suffer with feelings of disconnection, incompleteness, anxiety? Sometimes it’s overwhelming, and darkness descends. At other times you must really pay close attention to discover it at all – and yet, there it is, a gnat bite of unsatisfactoriness. For what do we hanker?
What it comes right down to, in the end, is happiness – isn’t it? That somehow doesn’t sound serious or upright or ambitious enough, so we may find ourselves saying instead that what we want is more money, more fame, more power. Or perhaps, hoping to sound more noble, we lust after freedom, or truth, or to do good. We struggle for some great reform, start a revolution, dig in and bank up the sides of the status quo, fight for the reaction. Some of us hanker for more money; some to do more good work for others or to save the world. Some, in the case of the “effective altruism” movement, do both. But why would we want any of these things if not to be happy? Surely we only want money to be happy; to help others so that we feel ourselves to be good and useful and hence happy?
Maybe, but happiness alone is not quite enough. In his great novel, Wolf Solent, John Cowper Powys presents two visions that represent the extremes of what fate might hold in store for human beings. The first is the “face on the Waterloo steps”, glimpsed by the book’s protagonist at the railway station. Just to look at such a face is to enter yourself into the very depths of misery and despair. It is life without hope. It is the plain, unadorned struggle for existence – and the eagle digs his claws into your shoulders.
The second extreme, also glimpsed by the book’s protagonist on his literal and philosophic wanderings, is self-satisfied “happiness”. There, sitting in a neat garden, retired from life’s struggles at last, puffing contentedly on a pipe and enjoying his property and the passing show, is the face of a man with the look of a cat lapping up the cream. Contentment and indulgence. Perhaps this vision might sound more appealing to you. And yet, just think, how could you sit there lapping up the cream while you know that there is yet in this world that face on the Waterloo steps? It’s grotesque. Unworthy. Could we think of a better word than inhuman?
We arrive, then, at a tentative conclusion. The aim of existence is to be happy while pursuing a human life, a noble life. Except that this is not so much a conclusion – not something to be decided and resolved upon and that’s that. It’s more like an art, something that demands study and practice. What’s delightful about it is that it’s art we can all play a part in creating; no credentials nor any particular talents are required. If you are a human being, practising the art of living – whether it’s for one minute or one day or the next 40 years – is something you can actually do, every minute of your life. The result can be great happiness – for ourselves, and for our fellow creatures.–Stuart