I am born, a nonconscious blob. I wake up. A little time passes. I am old. Between then and now, one would expect the patterns to become clear, the underlying principles to be revealed. At some point, one expects to learn the formula for living correctly.
I expected that — I thought I’d grasped it when I was young, but no — I thought it would be the wisdom of my old age, but there’s no wisdom, just wrinkles and less hair. I can discern few patterns, fewer principles of order.
There is no formula for life.
True, philosophers keep looking — but philosophers have been lost in the dark since Socrates. Plato abandoned reality and created a phantom world of forms to discover life’s formula in his own fantastic creation. Descartes found his formula while hiding inside a huge Dutch oven. Thoreau imagined he could decipher infinite nature as the result of living in an Irishman’s hut.
Rationalists crave formula; they want to live by the manual. Who wouldn’t?
They call it “utility” or “happiness” then proceed to confusion at the very next step. For this they blame conspiracies, but it’s a flaw in their thinking. There is no manual. There is no formula.
How then are we to live?
By a combination of dream and accident: by integrity and luck. We are given a community, we are born to it: whether peaceful or violent, prosperous or starving, deep or dim, is an accident of birth. Your family, your body, your basic personality: accidents of birth. From a certain perspective, all human life appears as an accident of birth.
But there are other perspectives. Some are born privileged yet dissipate themselves to misery. Some are born wretched yet rise above pain and sorrow to greatness on a human scale. Some part of who we are is ours to determine. We aren’t entirely pawns in the hands of capricious gods.
Much is hardwired, given. Much is accidental and unfathomable. The dignity of our species resides in taking what is given and imposing a noble story on the randomness of everyday experience, even loss, even suffering, even — and necessarily — death.
I’m not a philosopher. I’m not a rationalist. I long ago gave up on my youthful idea that there should be a formula by which to guide my steps. I therefore look on my life, my past, with wonder.
I live in a country that is bountiful and free. I have my wife of many years, holding me straight like those flying buttresses which support the old churches in Europe. I have exactly the number of children I asked for, each of them also a source of wonder, all of them vastly superior products to their Dad. I have travelled to many strange places, seen astonishing things.
How did such luck happen to come my way?
I’d like to believe it was deserved. I’d like to think I shaped my fate by force of character, and earned my luck by the goodness of my actions. But hard as I try, I find this impossible to believe.
I know others who suffer through no fault of their own: people who are better and kinder than me, tormented by cancer, distracted by bipolar disorder, crushed by loneliness — people who have lost their spouses, their children, to accidental deaths, or whose luck it was never to marry, never to have children. None of this was deserved.
Human life is inherently tragic. That is another way of saying it defies any possible formula. Much is hardwired and given, much is undeserved, and only the inescapable end is known: death, not truth, is the daughter of time. Some lies, I submit, last forever.
Alas, I’m not a Puritan. I can’t believe my good fortune has any connection to my worth as a human being. For all I know, it will be reversed tomorrow. But this only expands my sense of wonder. If life is so fragile, if causality is so disconnected from moral worth, why did I come to be so privileged, even for a little while?
I don’t know. I suspect — maybe this is intellectual vanity — no one has ever known the answer to such questions. But I do know the path I wish to follow.
Let me dwell peaceably in my community: not just the great big United States of America, though I’m proud to be part of such a magnificent human story, but first and mainly my little neighborhood in Fairfax County, Northern Virginia.
Let me cleave to my wife and watch my children launch their own stories into the unsuspecting world — if my luck rubs off on them a bit, and they get spouses and children of their own, let me share in their lives and their troubles until the light goes out.
And when someone does turn out the light for good, let me go into the dark in a way that doesn’t discredit my own life’s story.
Let these things happen, and I will have found my one-man, one-time, one-of-a-kind universal formula for life.
Wish me luck.