The place you need to go and work backwards from is death and suffering; not general death and suffering, but that of your own, ever-approaching death and ever-experiencing of suffering. These are facts of life, and they are ever-threatening to rob you of your happiness. Babies are born and immediately begin experiencing distress, and are immediately fated to death. Whether they will live happy lives or unhappy lives, or live long enough to discover whether their lives had at least the potential for mature, adult, soul-penetrating happiness or unhappiness, are beyond the full control of their parents and everyone else. When misfortune and bad luck are determined to strike, there is no resisting them.
My third child was born Wednesday. I want to have better answers to the big questions for her, and for myself. The best answers, let us say, will be those that lead to the most happiness. The end of any philosophical inquiry into any of the big questions does not have waiting at the end of it a little old man with a long white beard holding a staff and a thick leather-bound answer book stationed to confirm or deny the truth of your conclusions. You will know a tree by its fruits. All living experience involves action. Even the simple tree has action– it grows, changes. All action is directed to some end and has consequences, i.e. fruit. Judge the fruit and you will know the tree. Are the consequences good or bad, increasing happiness or decreasing happiness? Are the fruits worth keeping or avoiding?
Some fruits are pleasant in the eating but fatal and poisonous as they proceed into the body. Some fruits are nevertheless eaten despite their known toxicity. Some pleasures are good enough in the short term that they are enjoyed despite their later negative effects. With moderation many of these can be enjoyed without issue. Yet an over-reliance on them makes moderation impossible. The tree that consumes such fruit exclusively will in turn produce very bad fruit itself in the sense that, if the tree symbolizes a person, such a person will be very unhappy between his or her indulgences in such a fruit.
Other fruits are unpleasant in the eating but are later strengthening as they proceed into the body. Several problems prevent simply concluding that these other fruits are superior to the immediate gratifications described previously. At least three major problems with a steady diet of unpleasant-now-but-pays-off-later fruits include: (1) not living long enough to see the later pay off; (2) no guarantee that any combination of unpleasant fruits will actually pay off; (3) not knowing whether you are consuming unpleasantly tasting fruit the right way for the pay off to materialize, that is, even if the first 2 problems are overcome, i.e. you live long enough and there is some possible diet of unpleasant fruits that could lead to a great and happy life.
You could simply pretend that these problems are not a problem for you. You could focus on cultivating faith that your sacrifices will pay off, ignoring the nay-sayers, and fervently concentrating on sustaining that belief and that devotion to the inner wisdom of your chosen way of life. “It’s not the destination, but the journey, that matters.” The anticipation of good pay offs in the future is in itself its own reward that is experienced right now, during the journey. To live off the satisfaction from that pleasant anticipation has the great advantage of not needing to have the right destination. The anticipation of heaven is a good example — no one knows if they actually are going to heaven, but many people find peace, comfort, and even joy in their anticipation of getting to heaven.
But it is one thing to get something out of such anticipation, while it is quite another to be fully satisfied by such anticipation, and of such full satisfaction we must be more skeptical that anticipation of good things is going to do the trick. As rewarding as the smell of a delicious meal can be, as much as our house guest fasting for the day may assert his sufficient happiness merely from the aroma of the food, his anticipation of sharing the meal another day, and from his awareness of his host’s pleasure in actually eating the meal, our house guest cannot really be thought to be fully satisfied by these modest, self-denying quasi-pleasures alone. Minor consolation pleasures are indeed pleasant, but they are weak-tea.
So anticipation of good things, basking in their glow, enjoying them vicariously, “the journey,” and all the rest, is probably insufficient for the happiness we seek, and spending a lot of energy trying to be satisfied by such things will probably be a waste. The destination matters, and the three problems identified above associated with pursuing a long term destination need to be dealt with more directly.
The first problem, the threat of a “premature” or “too soon” death in the long term pursuit of happiness, while seeming to intensify the sense of life being unfair, may be a clue (even the clue) as to how life should be lived. “Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we shall die.” It may point toward the life of intense immediate gratifications and free us from all of the unpleasantness associated with strategically trying to achieve long term happiness. “Seize the day.”
But this being a complicated issue, attempts at solving one set of problems related to it can raise others. The life lived as if it were going to end soon, by being abusive to basic principles of health and security and defiant of wisdom, destroys itself, one might speculate nearly always sooner than might have otherwise occurred by random misfortune. We don’t even encourage such behavior for the terminally ill. In the face of death we seem to shy away from endorsing the quicker and faster and yes even some of the more intense and exhilarating pleasures. We may even shy away from them more than usual. Death makes everyone feel more cautious, sometimes of the body, but nearly always of the soul. The soul needs to be fed with more virtue before death, not more vice.
These reflections suggest that abandoning hope in a longer life for a brief but bright blast of lawless hedonism is probably a mistake, and even momentarily adopting such a view will only lead to regret, as one must return to the project of preparing for the rest of life and for facing death at the end of it. The last thing one needs in this is regret over an increasing sense of lost ground, lost time, and lost direction. Pleasure from “memories” of the past seem the only return on the investment, and like anticipation of future goods, the memory of past goods share in common the fact that presently, the actual goods, the actual experiences, are not actually being experienced (any more).
So the looming threat of death does not, after a careful consideration, move us off of the life of virtue, sacrificing today for a lasting pay off down the road. The second problem listed above was that future goods may not ever actually materialize no matter what you do, or at least they may not be worth the earlier sacrifices of our younger selves. “Nice guys finish last” expresses skepticism that being nice pays off in the end. “You only live once” expresses skepticism that missing out today on good things is essentially missing your only chance at happiness. Together they reduce to something like: “Don’t be polite. Don’t be patient. Assert yourself, viciously if need be — now.”
The problem with this attitude is that when you pick a fight with the world, the world fights back. When everyone is striving for difficult to obtain good things, the last thing everyone wants to do is abide a cheater, unless they too can gain in the process. Moreover, any experienced person can see that virtuous people seem to obtain good things at least more often than average. The virtuous life just seems to work out for many people. It doesn’t work out for all virtuous people, however. Call it bad luck or by some other name, things can go wrong and apparent destinations can be found to be desert mirages. Which brings us to the third problem listed above: What if my long term decision making is simply flawed and doesn’t prove successful in overcoming the obstacles of life, despite basically following common wisdom that has worked for many others? Which life philosophy, which religion, which role model would prove best for me and the life I am fated to live?
All one can suggest at this juncture of the inquiry is to start exploring. The goal here is simply to rise above mere appearances and reach toward the true answers. Is this the same as giving up on the destination and enjoying the journey? No. The exploration itself will probably be very unpleasant at least as often as it offers some momentary, even occasionally intense pleasures. There is “philosophical melancholy” to worry about, as well as the risk of plummeting into nihilism and despair, as well as the risk of being prematurely impressed by some very wrong, very false, very foolish way of life that is destructive. The risks are serious, and are often flatly understated or outright dismissed by advocates of a more philosophical and searching way of life. But the prize, the thing that you could land on, is the very best way of life that is most perfectly suited to you in the fullness of your innermost and most secret individuality. If rightly understood and pursued, you will actually stand to acquire the goods that will complete your happiness, and be found at the end of your days located squarely within your life’s truest and most meaningful destination.