Tuesday, October 4, 2022

#278 / What To Do With Your Life


I teach courses in the Legal Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and my Fall Quarter classes began a couple of weeks ago, on September 22, 2022. The classes I am teaching are called "Privacy, Technology, And Freedom" (LGST 198), and "Cities, Urban Planning And The Law" (LGST 148 / ENVS 148). 
An illustration showing a student, sitting on a mortarboard and scanning the future, seems an appropriate way to depict the issues I always try to address in the classes I am teaching. What I hope the students will get out of the classes I teach is less any specific information about the topic areas covered and more a sense of what they are going to do with their lives, post-classes and post-graduation.

That image at the top of today's blog posting comes from The New York Times, and specifically from an opinion piece authored by Benjamin Storey and Jenna Silber Storey. These two are Senior Fellows at the American Enterprise Institute; they are also research professors at Furman University. Their article, which appeared in the August 19, 2022, edition of The Times, was titled, "The Art of Choosing What to Do With Your Life." 

The Storeys offer several general possibilities that students might choose, suggesting that Thomas Aquinas has outlined the choices available (and that there are really only eight possibilities): 

Thomas Aquinas ... calls the reason that is the orienting point of all your other reasons your “final end.” Those who discover that they have such final ends, and learn to assess them, see their way to the exit from the fun house of arbitrary decisions in which the young so often find themselves trapped.
For the number of final ends is not infinite. Aquinas usefully suggests that the ultimate objects of human longing can be sorted into only eight enduring categories. If we want to understand where we’re headed, we should ask ourselves these questions: Am I interested in this opportunity because it leads to wealth? Or am I aiming at praise and admiration? Do I want enduring glory? Or power — to “make an impact”? Is my goal to maximize my pleasures? Do I seek health? Do I seek some “good of the soul,” such as knowledge or virtue? Or is my ultimate longing to come face-to-face with the divine
Most students find, to their surprise, that they can locate their desires on this old map (emphasis added).
In another column in the same edition of The Times, David Brooks wrote about someone else (not Thomas Aquinas) who might provide some appropriate guidance for those who want to discover "what to do with your life." 

Brooks directs us to the ideas of Frederick Buechner, an American writer, novelist, poet, autobiographer, and essayist, who was also an ordained Presbyterian minister. Buechner, says Brooks, asks us to "see your life for 'the fathomless mystery' it is."
I am sympathetic to Buechner's approach. When we consider our lives in their totality, they are not, really, simply human constructions - things we build ourselves, aiming at one or another of the objectives that Aquinas outlines. 

We do, of course, build both our individual and collective lives by the choices we make, and it can be helpful to consider what sort of ends we are looking for, as we do that. This is the benefit of paying attention to Aquinas' analysis. 
However, our existence on this beautiful Planet Earth is not our own creation - certainly not our own creation alone. The World of Nature, The World "God Made," is the basis for everything we do. Nowadays, we call that world "the environment." That world - the World of Nature - is the precondition for all our own works, and for our presence here. No matter how many ways we might try to describe our lives, in terms of various possible objectives, life is profoundly mysterious, and a gift, and the only truly fulfilling and fulfilled life must recognize this fact, and defer to the Earth, to the "environment" that makes possible everything that we might choose to do. I just got through reading a book called Sacred Nature, by Karen Armstrong, that makes this point quite well.
I think it is important, as we each try to grapple with the profoundly important question, "What Should I Do With My Life?" to place the Aquinas' analysis of our possibilities within the framework of the insight that Buechner brings us. Here is the advice that Brooks highlights, as he ends his column: 

One of Buechner’s often cited observations is that you find your vocation at the spot where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need ... So much of the world covers over all that — constant media consumption, shallow communication, speed and productivity. Sometimes I think the national obsession with politics has become a way to evade ourselves. Buechner’s vocation was to show a way to experience the fullness of life. Of death, he wrote, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup” (emphasis added).

Image Credits:
(1) - https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/15/opinion/college-students-happiness-liberal-arts.html
(2) -  https://www.worldatlas.com/space/earth.html

1 comment:

  1. Interesting and timely post this morning.

    Karen Armstrong's" Sacred nature is available at the Santa Cruz Public Library.

    We not only have to find a Way to "What Should I Do With My Life?" as individuals, we must also find a Way to "How to Live" for our entire culture and society.

    One of the reasons for the perceived gulf between the human world and the natural world is that the Enlightenment turned our cultural philosophy from "How to Live" to "How to Do Things." Science became the province of "How to Do Things" and "How to Live" was left to religions.

    As the social organization of Western Civilization turned away from religion as the arbiter of ethics and morality, science, with its emphasis and things, atomism and individuality, the role of religion in daily life diminished. Since Science does not address questions of ethics and morals, we are left emptiness when it comes to determining how we live.

    It remains for our culture to recombine physics and metaphysics to find away to live as one with the rest of the natural world.


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