What makes a life worth living? Four lenses to ponder…

Posted by on Jan 11, 2021 in Blog | 4 comments

Matthew Croasmun directs the Life Worth Living program at the Yale Centre for Faith and Culture, and in a recent podcast suggests there are four levels at which people live, and invites us to examine our life to ask if most of our living takes place at a level of significance. It struck me that the exercise is worth undertaking towards the start of the year, when we might be a little more open to self-reflection and change. While the stages are progressively more stretching, there are benefits and challenges at each. The underlying questions are “what is the shape of a flourishing life”, or “what is worth wanting” or “what life is worthy of our humanity”?

Croasmun suggests we live at 4 different levels:

  • Autopilot
  • Efficiency
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-transcendence

I’ll explore each a little more, sometimes following Croasmun but often introducing different ideas which have flowed from his useful prompting.

1. Autopilot: Here we do things automatically usually because we always have – though sometimes we have thought about a range of behavioral options carefully, decided the best course of action, and then put it on set and forget. In other words, we very intentionally do it automatically. Some people find themselves at the gym every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning because that is what they always do – and it is a really good habit they got into 5, 10 or even 20 years ago. This is probably an autopilot habit worth holding onto – one which is likely to add years to life. Being on autopilot can save time and unnecessary angst – after all, do you really want to ponder deeply if you should clean your teeth each morning? Some things you should just do.

My examples of the gym and teeth cleaning are of worthy autopilot habits – not all fall into the category of the worthy. We might automatically snap at others when under stress, or eat badly from routine, or make disparaging comments about others without even being aware that we are doing it. Socrates was right that “the unexamined life is not worth living”, and it is worth stopping and mentally taking a hundred snapshots of how we acted and reacted at different times in the last 24-48 hours. Most people discover that the bulk of their actions are entirely predictable because they have become habitual (or autopilot) ways of reacting. If takes just a few unhealthy autopilot reactions to take hold for our life to go badly off course. Changing some of them, for example, learning to delay critical comments and only offering them if there is a reasonable chance that they might be helpful (which is not all that often!) – could dramatically change the way we are perceived and the impact we have on others.

2. Efficiency: At this second level we check if what we do is done well and effectively. Different criteria might drive our conclusion – common ones being time taken and cost, while some also factor in the emotional energy expended or other more idiosyncratic measures. If we are going to be actors in the world, it makes sense to be efficient actors, so few would argue about the importance of occasionally reviewing the efficiency of our actions.

However, we can efficiently be doing unhelpful things – or efficiently be helping someone else’s agenda to flourish – an agenda we might not even approve of. Those who work in very large organizations sometimes discover that their company code of ethics is non-existent (in practice, as opposed to being tidily scripted in some never consulted file). Many years ago I chatted to a man who enlisted for the aggressor in an unjust war. I still remember him saying: “The worst part is to think that I was such a good soldier – but what I was doing was so destructive.”

Most often it is not as dramatic. It is more that we become very efficient at trivia. As someone once rather bitterly said to me: “I do trivia really well. But that’s the only thing I do well.”

When you self-examine, it is worth asking if what you do can be done more efficiently. Each day offers us 24 hours of opportunity. What we do with those hours will make our life more, or less, remarkable. If time is being squandered, it is at the cost of other things which could have been done. However, beware of false economies. My children are now married and long out the home, but I will never regret the many hours I spent lifting them to their seemingly endless sporting and cultural activities. It would often have been more efficient to have carpooled (and I sometimes did), but the time spent in one on one conversations on those many trips was gold. When you evaluate what is or what isn’t efficient, use criteria that probe deeply enough.

3. Self-awareness: At this third level, we begin the journey inwards. We might be automatically and efficiently waltzing through the years of our life, but it could be at the expense of who we most truly are. Many people hit a midlife crisis – a horrible period when they sense that a part of their being has been left behind; that busy and perhaps productive though they are, they are out of touch with their own self, and know little of their own identity.

One of the subjects I teach is preaching, and I stress that students need to find their own preaching voice. Too many try to imitate another voice that they admire. It doesn’t work. I also teach leadership. Again, I stress that students need to find their own leadership voice. This is not to say we cannot learn from other preachers or leaders, but in the end we need to know and use our own voice well. As the old adage goes, be yourself, everyone else is taken…

That does not mean we should be passive about the current version of our self. We are often urged to “be the best version of yourself”. Worthy and lofty though this goal is, it might be unattainable. After all, who knows what the best version of you is? Best is a very demanding standard. Could I suggest you more modestly aim at being a really good version of yourself? Aim to be who you are on your better days, and aim to have better days a lot more often. There is real progress to be made if we follow this route. This does require growing self-awareness. What brings forth the best from you? What makes you wilt and wither? Are you mixing with people who help you to be a good version of yourself? If not, why not?

4. Self-transcendence: In a world where individualism dominates, we sometimes feel no need to move beyond self-awareness. While it is debatable who first said: “Know thyself” (Socrates being a strong contender), to simply know our self is not enough. There are yet deeper questions to ponder. Are we living a life worthy of our humanity? Are we pursuing things that are worthy? Have we found the why for our life – a why that almost always moves us beyond our own existence, and into the wider purposes of God in the world. Remember Jesus’ profound paradox: Those who seek to find their life, lose it; those who are willing to lose their life for the sake of God’s Kingdom, find it. When I transcend my own small agenda, I find peace and joy in the much more ambitious agenda of God for the world.  

If we are to self-transcend, there are two virtues to hold in tension. The first is humility – for we will not be able to do everything that needs to be done, and indeed, we are not called to do everything that needs doing. Ours might be an extremely modest role in a very big plan. However, humility needs to be supplemented with courage – for we must risk living in accordance with that which is most worthy of our humanity. We must live in the light of what we most truly believe.

Why would we do this? A life which sets self-transcendence as its highest goal is one which most deeply believes in a transcendent God. God is – and if we have the courage to live in the light of the liberating existence and love of God, new ways of living become possible.

What is a life worth living?

Why not pause and evaluate how much your life is lived on auto pilot (and are the settings right?); how much is devoted to living efficiently (but efficiently doing what?) and what levels of self-awareness guide your quest? And then ask the yet deeper questions: What makes a life worth living? And what would self-transcendence look like for you?

As always, nice chatting…

4 Comments

  1. Always enjoy and gain from reading your thoughtful posts, Brian. This one is especially insightful and challenging.
    Many thanks and happy new year from London.
    JTS

    • Very good to hear from you Joshua. Hope you are doing ok in what has obviously been a difficult season of repeated lockdowns. We have got off very lightly here in Western Australia, though none of us knows what tomorrow might bring.
      Do you have any more writing projects coming off? I always enjoy reading your work.

  2. A very thoughtful and challenging read, Brian. And, I think, very timely as we head into another year of unknowns in which we desire to still live our lives with significance and purpose. Love the concept of “humility supplemented with courage”. I was just reading earlier today how God told Joshua to be strong and very couragious, not based just on him being a strong leader, but dependant on God’s promise, “I will be with you wherever you go!”.

    • Thanks Peter. When we sense God’s presence, courage is a lot more attainable.

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