Written and finished at Starbucks in San Jose with a triple espresso at my side and an EDM band called Tobu blasting in my ears. This is an essay inspired in my continued quest to think deeply and introspectively about the clients that I provide counseling to as they deal with terminal illness.
I’d like to propose an illustration that, perhaps, captures the image of a good life. For millennia, philosophers and religions alike, have tried to explain what the good life entails. For some, the good life is simply happiness or happiness found in an external agent, like God. Others have pointed out that the good life has to do with love, personal flourishing, or self-realization while doing meaningful activities. With so many theories, it’s easy to feel helpless when confronted with the deeply personal question: what does the good life look like? Rather than succumb to a one-size-fits all answer, I’ll put forth an illustration.
The good life is like a jazz group jamming together.
Allow me to clarify this illustration. The good life is like a jazz group jamming together; whereby people create a melodic harmony through engaging in meaningful experiences through free-flowing unencumbered expressions of living out their full potential. The result is a kind unbroken rhythm of joy and contentment.
You see, with jazz, you get this informal and improvised session whereby the musicians work off one another’s joyful creative expression to form a harmonious whole. Unlike a symphonic orchestra where the group follows a pre-defined musical score, jazz creates space for complex harmony to take place from the free expression of individuals playing together. In order to create harmony, each member must have a receptive sensitivity to the self-expressive performances of the other musicians. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights. As each player grows more musically eloquent, the others draw inspiration from this and are spurred to greater heights. There is no conflict here between freedom and ‘good of the whole.’ Though each performer contributes to ‘the greater good of the whole’, he does so not by some grim-lipped self-sacrifice but simply by expressing himself. There is a self-realization, but only through a loss of self in the music as a whole. There is achievement, but it is not a question of self-aggrandizing success. Instead, achievement – the music itself – acts as a medium or relationship among the performers. There is pleasure to be reaped from this artistry, and – since there is free fulfillment or realization of powers – there is also happiness in the sense of flourishing. Because this flourishing is reciprocal, we can speak, remotely and analogically, of a kind of love.
Like jazz, the good life is your creative meaningful expression that’s played alongside other people. In order to have harmony in our lives, we align our meaningful expression with the good of the people around us (good of the whole). Our direction and aim is to realize our potential and true capacity to be better and wiser; and we do this through the lessons learned, and inspiration we receive from others. In doing so, we reap the pleasure, joy and wisdom through the reciprocal melodic love that we give and is given to us.
Does this sound utopian? Absolutely. If only it were that easy. However, we need an aim. We need a compass pointing north. The aim is the good life. Nevertheless, the good life is vague and can be interpreted in innumerable ways that get us nowhere. Going deeper, the good life is a meaningful life, whereby people are able to flourish and reach toward their full potential as human beings. Put more simply, the aim is personal flourishment that is good for the whole. It’s a life in which individuals create values and virtues for the good of the whole. This is the difference between totalitarian and true democracy. The jazz band illustration is representative of the cooperative effort of people to allow space for the discovery of rhythm and harmony through the freedom of meaningful expressions. However, if we reduce the conversation of the good life to an unachievable pipe dream then how would you even know when your life has any value or worth? To the contrary, each jazz band member is challenged to new heights as they play their part for the good of the whole, while realizing that they are not alone in their quest, for they are playing with others who are seeking their own meaningful pinnacle. I readily admit that my answer is vague and anyone can poke holes in it – “meaningful”, “flourishing” and “harmonious whole” are packed full of nuances and contexts that require a proper context. However, they are worthy starting points, albeit a target and aim, that do us well until someone can point to something better.
Lastly, my jazz illustration leaves out is the bass player who goes rogue and messes it up for everyone. And sometimes, we are the rogue bass player. We know what it’s like to experience environments that are rhythmically chaotic, where all seems out of tune. Narcissism, bitterness, resentment, victimhood, poor decisions, etc., all lead to the digression and disharmony of any quest for musical beauty. This is where responsibility comes into play. Just as each jazz musician is responsible for their performance in the band, so to in life each of us must bear our individual responsibility to keep harmony with ourselves and others. While the entire world will never function like a jazz band playing rhythmically off each other in a harmonious whole, we can still take responsibility for our part in the band and play (i.e. live) to our fullest potential. The people around us may be playing off key, however, when it’s our time to engage with life, we can respond and take action in the most meaningful of ways.