The desire for immortality wasn’t the most obvious topic for my political theory dissertation, particularly one aimed at helping us understand our political situation today (the issue has been considered by most scholars as a dead one for hundreds of years). On the other hand, we all agree that new solutions are needed to overcome the problems that we face as a society. Well, new solutions mean new ways of thinking — it’s as simple as that. And sometimes the old can be made new again.
Of course, new ways of thinking are likely to fail — that is exactly why nobody else is trying them. They are untested, and often for good reason.
There really is no good way to get around this problem. Either we seek out these new solutions, and assume the risk that goes along with that, or we play it safe, waiting for somebody else to tackle the big issues of the day. With one life to live, and with a strong appetite to have some lasting significance, I’m willing to sometimes take my chances.
Over the past few years, I have found that this unusual path gives rise to unusual needs. I often feel, in my personal and professional life, that I am operating without a safety net — that failure will have serious consequences, and mediating those consequences requires constant vigilance and flexibility.
In this respect, I am profoundly blessed to have the unceasing love and support of my wife, Margarita. Where I have also found strength, unexpectedly, is from researching my family history. I began this much more personal kind of research shortly before my mother died 3 years ago tomorrow (April 13th, 2012). It had long haunted me how little I knew of my family, and how unrooted I felt in this world. When I began, I could not even recall the names of 3 of my grandparents.
In one of the last conversations I had with my mom, she shared with me some details about our family in order to help jump start my research. She also gave me some life advice, which was a pretty unusual thing for her to do. She told me to make sure, apart from working hard, that I try to make sure that I am happy.
This advice seemed pretty straightforward at the time (Sure Mom, okay), but her words stayed with me. Is there really a difference, after all, between working hard at something you are passionate about and being happy? Was she just giving me a hard time? The Bible tells us that we are cursed by the Fall of Adam to sweat and toil to provide for ourselves. Marx tells us that our labor is actually our fundamental essence, the activity that gives meaning to our lives. Adam Smith says in the Wealth of Nations that we innovate in the hopes of working less, perhaps suggesting that it is after our work is done that we pursue happiness. There are lots of different views on this, so was my mother’s advice just too oversimplified? That’s exactly what I thought for quite some time.
The better answer that I’ve come around to brings me back to the start of this post. The fact is that the answers given to us by the Bible, by Marx, by Smith are all undeniably subject to circumstance. They might all be right, they might all be wrong, and it may just depend. What we are charged with doing in this world, however, is discovering our own answer to our own circumstances. In this respect, after initially dismissing it, I now consider my mother’s advice to be superior to all three of these great moral and philosophic authorities.
“Make sure that you are happy.” Go out into the world and discover the possibilities. Test them; experiment with yourself. Research your family history, write a dissertation, love unconditionally. Be devoted, be “all in” when you try something. Maybe it will work, or maybe it won’t, and you’ll have to start all over again from the beginning. At the end of it all, at least you’ll have made sure. I don’t know how any of us could do any better.