Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Wednesday morning amateur philosphizing

Walking the mile from Penn Station NY to my office this morning, looking at the hundreds of faces that pass the other way in twenty blocks, I found myself thinking that the quality of a life is the sum of the emotions we experience each moment (and the cognitive therapists would add that what we feel is driven by the thoughts we think -- cf. Charlie Brown's mantra, 'nobody likes me, everybody hates me...').

Then I thought, of course that's not right -- it measures only the impact of our lives on our own selves. Most of us would want to be measured by our impact on other people and the world (and in fact our self-assessment on this score might largely shape how pleasurable our thoughts are moment-to-moment).  That impact is determined by characteristics (other than luck, and shaped largely by luck) such as intellect, and emotional intelligence, and effective aggression (there's got to be a better term for that...), and will or discipline or the power of concentration.

Then there's the religious perception that the ultimate value or quality of those "powers of impact" depends entirely on love -- of other people, or creation, or a god understood to make creation lovable.  That is the famous assertion of 1 Corinthians 13: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal 2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.  And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing."

Which brings us back to point A. What you feel moment-to-moment is largely shaped by how you feel about everyone and everything that most commands your attention. The Beatles boiled it down to a Dr. Seuss rhyme: "And in the end the love you take/is equal to the love you make."

That's comforting, but not necessarily true in any simple sense.  I recall the novelist John Gardner, who is perhaps most famous as a teacher of writing and writer about writing, raising the question of the value of the  work of a writer who by any ordinary measure is a terrible person.  He wrote, if I may paraphrase from memory, that that writer may be a much better person when he's writing than when he's doing anything else. And that may be true for any productive concentration of human energy -- including fighting (physically, legally, bureacratically -- most of us would acknowledge the value when we approve the cause), or hitting a baseball (Ted Williams wanted only to be the greatest hitter whoever lived and more or less succeeded) or bond trading (which in a well regulated market does have a productive function). 

So what about the productive person who's mainly hurtful in personal relationships, or simply has very limited personal relationships?  People don't sort out so neatly. A person may be quite selfish and still not be embroiled in the kind of hurtful personal relationships that make people miserable, and so may experience life more or less pleasantly if he or she is successful in working life or some other activity that fully engages that person. 

Dickens put such a character in a kind of hell or purgatory (it's not clear whether the punishment is permanent) in A Christmas Carol -- Scrooge's partner Jacob Marley.  Marley's ghost explains to Scrooge that he is doomed to wander through the world and "witness what it cannot share," bearing a long chain comprised of his deeds in life, Scrooge protests, "But you were always a good man of business." Marley cries back, "Business! Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business!" 

But what if Marley helped build, or even fund, an industry that's been integral to the rise in human living standards over the 150-odd years since Marley was imagined to have lived?   What if he had no wife or children, and his relationship with Scrooge was his closest one? What if, without any of the warmth that most of us seek, he simply took satisfaction in Scrooge's shared business acumen?   What if he was able to effectively pay for whatever further human contact he needed? 

I think I've come to a dead end here. The question seems to be, short of a perfect ledger kept by a just God, how do you measure the worth of a human life.  You don't, in any absolute sense. Most of us might more or less trust that our personal happiness is mainly determined by the quality of our personal relationships and our sense of whether we've accomplished anything we value.  As for others, the best advice is still "judge not."

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