Keep asking the perennial questions

31 January 2020

What does it mean to live a good life?

When should we be proud of the life we’ve led?

How much is enough?

What does it mean to love?

These are perennial questions. They don’t have definitive answers.

The answer that is right for you is personal to you. The answer that is right for you right now may be different to the answer that was right for you ten years ago, or what might be right for you in twenty years time.

The key isn’t to come up with a final answer. The key is to keep asking the question.

The key to the kingdom is the kingdom.

I’ve just finished reading a wonderful novel, Touch by Claire North (author of one of my favourite books: The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August). It is thought-provoking in the best possible way.

The central conceit of the novel is that we live in a world similar to our own. The difference is that there are “ghosts” who, upon touching a person, can take over that person’s body (which they call a “skin”). When the ghost moves to a new skin, the person they were living in wakes up, with a bout of amnesia for however long their body has been taken over.

Without spoiling the story, the narrator meets a man, Will, who he/she/it had jumped into many years ago. He/she/it had worn the man’s body for a period of time, under an agreement, and had helped Will, who was homeless and begging at the time, to get a new start on life.

Over the ensuing decades, Will had, by all measures, lived a very good life. After dinner in Will’s mansion, they have an interesting conversation [which includes swears]:

“You’ve built yourself a wonderful life here,” I said as the leaves swayed on the beech tree and a child screamed in a neighbour’s garden. “You must be proud.”

Silence from Will, and I glanced over at him to see his hand white around the circumference of his glass, eyes turned into the setting sun.

“Proud. I guess so. I’ve done the things you’re meant to do. Get a job, get a house, get a husband. I got to the dentist, clean the floors, plant the garden, have dinner with friends. Yeah, I’m proud. I’ve lived the American dream. I owe you that. But… I’m not so sure, any more, that the American dream is a thing to take pride in. You see the kids come back from Vietnam; you live through Watergate, watch the Russians point missiles at you which you just point straight back, and you think… yeah, I’ve got the perfect life. But it’s someone else’s idea of perfection. Someone told me to be proud, and I did it, and I’m proud, but the pride I’ve got… I’m not so sure it’s mine.”

“What would you rather do?”

“Fuck,” he groaned. “Fuck, what kind of question is that? How the fuck do I know what I’d rather do, I haven’t done it. I’ve begged. I’ve been down on the street on my fucking knees and begged, and I know I don’t want to do that. I know that this life is better – so much better it doesn’t even seem like the same me living it. I know what I have is great because everyone tells me so, but how do I know? How do I know that what I do is better than being a surgeon, hands covered in beating blood? Or a soldier, a politician, an actor, a teacher, a preacher. How the fuck do I know that my better is anything more than the great big fat lie we tell ourselves to justify the slow fat nothing of our days. There isn’t enough time in a life to find out if the other guy’s better is better than yours, cos you’d have to lose everything you have to  find out yourself.”

Will continues:

“In the old days our fathers dreamed of bringing liberty and prosperity to the whole of the human race, of building a perfect society, and somehow that became a dream of a bigger car and a bigger front window and our neighbours making apple pie, apple fucking pie. And we bought into it, the whole fucking country, we bought into it, and we’re proud because our lawns are neat and our houses are warm in winter and cool in summer and – fuck” He slammed his glass down, port slopping in bloody streams over the side. “We’re happy because we’re too fucking scared, too fucking lazy to think of anything better to be.”

The narrator directs the conversation towards Will’s husband, Joe: “do you love him?”

“Fuck, of course I do.” He spoke the words, and  I believed him… “I love him. But how do I know I love him? How do I know that this is love? I’ve got nothing else to measure it by, no way of knowing. What’s enough? How you live, who you live, what’s enough?”

“Nothing. Nothing is ever quite enough. No matter who you are, there’s always something more to be hand, which could be yours if only you were someone else.”

Later in the conversation, Will asks to become a “ghost”, so he can experience life through the eyes of others. The narrator’s response:

“You become like me, and not only will you lose the what, you’ll lose the who you have. Every means you have of self-definition, from the mole under your arm to the friends who pick you up when you’re too drunk to drive, the memories you own and the stories you tell, the clothes you wear and the people you love, none of it will exist any more. They will belong to someone else. Someone else’s stories. And all you are will be… an audience… to a life you cannot live.”

Your mileage may vary. But I found this conversation meaningful.

Lately I’ve been coming back to the theme: YOU DO YOU.

Live the life that you want, not the life that your neighbour has. Not the life that your parents or “society” (however you define that) dictates. Make decisions that are in line with your personal values and priorities.

Of course, make these decisions in an informed way. Think about these questions.

Sometimes you’ll interrogate your assumptions, wrestle with what you’ve held sacred, and have dark nights of the soul.

But it’s worth it.

It’s a bit like the old saying: education may be expensive, but it’s less costly than ignorance.

And, of course, Socrates’ dictum: “The unexamined life is not worth living”.

What does it mean to live a good life?

When should we be proud of the life we’ve led?

How much is enough?

What does it mean to love?

I call these perennial questions because they are the sorts of questions you should keep asking.

Your answers will change over time, and the answers will be unique to you.


perennial, perennial questions, questions, wealth, you do you

About the author 

Sonnie Bailey

In his spare time, Sonnie likes telling people that he’s a former Olympic power walker, a lion tamer, or that he is an orthodontist. He is none of those things. In reality, Sonnie is a financial planner based in Christchurch. Through his business, Fairhaven Wealth (www.fairhavenwealth.co.nz), he provides independent, advice-only, fixed-fee financial planning services. Sonnie is a “recovering lawyer”: he has specialised in trusts and personal client work. He has also worked as a financial services lawyer for many years.

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