Introduction to Essays on How to Live
These essays have a theme – how to live. They address the timeless questions of our purpose in life, the values to live by, acquiring knowledge, becoming wiser, and making good decisions. These essays are my perspective on a few selected subjects I found particularly helpful and powerful.
We all want to live a “good” life, whatever that means. Living well is hard. Everyone struggles with choices and attitudes. Sometimes the struggle is basic — getting a job, supporting your family, staying healthy. Sometimes it is philosophical — why am I on this earth? We may wonder “what is happiness?” and “am I happy?” Sometimes it is a moral struggle — am I doing the right thing? Sometimes it is psychological – “how can I feel less anxious?” People have wrestled with these issues and questions for as long as there have been people. There are no easy answers but there is knowledge that can help make life meaningful, fulfilling, and happier. That is what these essays are about.
The essays were written to help me learn how to live well and thrive. Writing helps clarify vague concepts and forces deeper learning. Nothing exposes the quality of one’s thinking more than putting it into your own words. My writing is self-indulgent and self-centered. The essays provide my point of view and my interpretations. They often come from personal experience and capture what has been useful to me.
I try to write from a practical perspective. These are not motivational essays encouraging us to be all that we can be. I hope to avoid well-worn platitudes that sound good (maybe they are) but get confusing when we try putting them into action. I am not trying to provide an authoritative view of what others think or have written. I will reference the writings of others but focus on my interpretation of their work and its impact on me.
Lots of advice about how to live a good life is contradictory. Following one principle leads you to violate another. These essays at times will be contradictory. That is one of the lessons. However, I hope to address contradictions in a way that allows the reconciliation and balancing. This is all complicated and there is no simple answer.
I write as an ordinary person. I am not an expert in any of the topics I write about. I am not an academic or a philosopher. I am not a psychologist (although I live with one). I’m not a writer by profession. What I bring to this work are lessons learned in large part through living. I’ve seen and experienced much in life. I like to think I have learned something and some good has come from life’s pain and suffering.
My lifelong quest to learn and gain wisdom has been aided by extensive reading on many related topics from moral philosophy to history to evolutionary biology. I hope to blend the lessons of others with my own experience to produce something of value to others. This is not a blueprint that everyone can follow. It is bits and pieces of a bigger picture I know I will never see or understand. Importantly, I present my thoughts and interpretations with the caveat that I could easily be wrong.
I made several assumptions when writing these essays that I will not try to defend. One is that we have free will. None of what I write makes sense if we don’t have the ability to choose. Another is that reason is the best tool to acquire the wisdom I seek and determine how to live well. Human reason has limits but without it I would be lost.
Two writers inspired my effort. One is Miguel de Montagne and his essays. I liked the idea that someone who was not a professional writer, not an academic, and not a philosopher would sit down and write essays about himself, his view of the world, and how to live. His writing not only created the essay as a literary form but also influenced the thinking of millions.
Marcus Aurelius’ and his “Meditations” also provided inspiration. His diary was written only for himself to help him live his values. It was never intended to be published or read by others. Yet is has provided wisdom for millennia. I don’t for a moment think my musings on life deserve to be in the same library as these classics. But I approached writing these essays with somewhat the same perspective – practical and thoughtful observations on how to live written primarily for myself that may interest a few others.