Monday, February 26, 2018

The Good Life--Act III

It's the good life, full of fun, seems to be the ideal,
Yes, the good life, lest you hide all the sadness you feel,
You won't really fall in love 'cause you can't take the chance,
So be honest with yourself, don't try to fake romance.
Yes, the good life, to be free and explore the unknown,
Like the heartache when you learn you must face them alone,
Please remember I still want you and in case you wonder why,
Well, just wake up, kiss that good life goodbye.
Frank Sinatra

Oh, the good life, full of fun seems to be the ideal
Mm, the good life lets you hide all the sadness you feel
You won't really fall in love for you can't take the chance
So please be honest with yourself, don't try to fake romance

It's the good life to be free and explore the unknown
Like the heartaches when you learn you must face them alone
Please remember I still want you, and in case you wonder why
Well, just wake up, kiss the good life goodby.
 Tony Bennett
My internet search skills are usually up to the task, but I can't find anything that will tell me who wrote the lyrics to this fairly famous song--famous if you are of my generation.  The first version is apparently the lyrics according to the Frank Sinatra recording; the second according to Tony Bennett.  Just comparing versions, we can find a problem:  there seems to be no authoritative version, though Bennett's make more sense. The syntax of  "Yes, the good life, lest you hide all the sadness you feel" doesn't make a whole lots of sense (unless "lest" is a typo), whereas Bennett's "the good life lets you hide all the sadness you feel" is fairly clear.  But even beyond these small but significant differences, the lyrics don't endorse "the good life" unreservedly.  And why does the beloved show up in only the last two lines?  Is she--or he--an afterthought?

Perhaps that's because "the good life" in this song is largely autonomous and a flight from emotion.  All that hopping in Jaguars and sailing on yachts and drinking of the best Scotch or champagne is busy-ness in the service of avoiding feelings and loneliness.  Because if you are going to be "free and explore the unknown," you can't be tied down.  The song, with its rather melancholy tune, is really ambivalent about "the good life."  On one hand, our culture presents it as an ideal, and we all recognize when we see it in car advertisements and beer commercials.  The individuals represented there have enough money to take life by the tail and wallow in the pleasures of excess and luxury, or the delights of the open road.  Yet if I'm reading the last two lines right--and I'm not altogether sure that I am--being loved necessitates waking up from that unrealistic adventurous dream and kissing the good life goodbye:  asking and acknowledging what someone else wants, changing a few diapers or spending some late nights at the office.  The lyricist has chosen an interesting verb for that last line:  if we kiss someone we love in a kind of acknowledging, passionate hello, we kiss the good life goodbye.

This double vision of the good life goes back to the Greeks.  Both Socrates and Plato thought "the good life" demanded some goodness of us.  Those living the good life are loving, empathetic, generous, compassionate...all those things we love to experience--so much so that empathy or gratitude from a stranger often makes our eyes water.  Epicurus, whose beliefs are complex and whose ideas I am simplifying--not quite to make him a straw man--thought that pleasure was important, although he also valued intense friendship.  As I have been thinking about the good life, I've thought it might be useful to put it on a continuum, perhaps with Mother Teresa on the generous, loving, ethical end and....oh why not put Donald Trump some place where he does belong: believing in pleasure and all the goods--particularly power and money--on the other end.  The individual whose days are spent in the pursuit of wealth, power, and pleasure has often seemed like a capitalist caricature, a figment of advertisers' imaginations, designed to get us to want more stuff.  It's a role we'll let Trump play.

Then after you've got the notions of "good" on either end of a continuum,  consider how much you want to move toward the other end.  I think, for example, that it is difficult to live a good life when your daily needs aren't reliably met and you don't know where your next meal is coming from or where you are going to sleep.  Then let me play with your head some more by throwing chaos theory into the mix.  Some complex systems, like the dripping of a tap, weather on the prairie, or rush hour traffic, are chaotic and unpredictable.  That's why the dripping tap drives you crazy:  you never know when the next "plop" will sound.  But mathematicians who study chaos theory observe that within the chaotic, complex systems there are underlying patterns that actually map the outer limits of occurrences.  What is contained near the outer areas of your idea of the good life?  I think--and I know Ken will forgive me--that walking is part of his idea of the good life--walking and the thinking and exploring that comes with it.  It's part of his idea of a needful social justice.  I know some people who couldn't live the good life without a pair of binoculars to watch the birds.  I know others, not gifted musicians particularly, who nevertheless feel that making music is part of their good life.

At the beginning of these posts on the good life, I described my own idea of the good life while also suggesting that my definition would not be yours.  Maybe you don't think that creativity is central to the good life, for example, or that people seeking the good life should take long walks in forests or through the prairie. Maybe you think gratitude is just nice--a bonus if it happens.  But we can probably agree on some central principles.  Love, with its assistants, empathy and compassion, can probably sit at the core.  (There is no love, after all, without empathy and compassion.)  We don't necessarily mean romantic love; love for one's fellow human beings, or at least some of them, will do just fine. I think generosity would be important:  without our generosity, those we love would never know it.  I think most of us would agree that it is difficult to truly live the good life in an unjust world--indicating that ideas of justice and fairness belong in the inner orbit of the good life.  But beyond the core, beyond that chaotic centre of your life, when the dripping of the tap or the gusting of the prairie wind becomes hard to predict, you should put the things that matter to you

If you don't like chaos theory, think about a nebula with a dense core, like a core of central beliefs, and the outer, looser orbiting dust that is being drawn in to the gravitational orbit at the centre that constitutes your individual, idiosyncratic idea of the good life. 

The point is that we reflect on the good life, that we make it a horizon we walk toward, a horizon that orients us, not something we will necessarily achieve, but also not a formula offered to us by others that we passively accept.  Maybe the good life is spent seeking the good life--though Google tells me that Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre said it first!

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