We’re all trying to live good lives. What exactly that entails depends on who you ask, their background, genetics, experience, all that stuff. One monk’s blasphemy is a hedonic’s joy. There’s no “one size fits all” prescription for a good life that all can follow. Absent of religious dogma, there is only the creed to “do that which brings about desirable consequences”.
That said, I’ve noticed two fundamentally disparate mindsets that people use to go about this: living for the present and living for the future. You could also live for the past, but that would be focusing on circumstances out of your control, which is a sure recipe for depression. But by living well now, you will live well in the past, and by planning to live well in the future, you will do so in the present. So the only times you need to worry about living well are the present and the future.
However, these two times are sometimes at odds. What is best for you now may not what is be best for you in the future. But what is best for you in the future is often no fun for now. Therefore, the answer as to how to spend your days (and by extension, your life) depends on whether you prefer to live well today or tomorrow. There’s no ‘right’ balance, just the best fit for your disposition.
Two Extremes With The Answer in The Middle
An apt description of a Present oriented person is that of Jack Kerouc’s mad ones: “the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” His characters in On The Road are perfect examples of this – always traveling, always looking for the next thrill, always having a good time but never satisfied. Meanwhile, they leave behind a trail of booze, misdemeanors, broken women, and a forgotten child or two. The beatniks knew how to have a good time, but they didn’t know how to live a good life.
The best description of a Future oriented person is George Bernard Shaw’s unreasonable man: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” Such a person is never satisfied with what is, only what could be. It is a sure recipe for greatness (or failed ambitions), but can lead to a joyless life, constantly striving for that which does not exist. The unreasonable man is never satisfied either, and this is a sure ingredient in the cocktail of a good life.
Surely no rational person would want to live either of these extremes. Luckily this is not a dichotomy with two mutually exclusive opposites, but a duality, where any point on the balance is a combination of the two. You must figure out how much Present and how much Future you want in yours days, and recognize that your answer is distinct from that of everyone else’s.
Some people prefer Kerouc’s lifestyle over Shaw’s, and others vice versa. That’s fine! It makes a lot more sense for everyone to have their own unique balance than for all of humanity to fit into 16 odd personality types like a Myers Briggs test. So I can’t tell you where your balance is – only you know that answer. But I think it helps to point out the axis, and to note that disagreement comes from people on different points. Nobody is wrong, per se, they just have different preferences.
To find where you fit, just look at what you prefer, how you already decide to spend your life. Every action in the Now has a partner in the Later, and vice versa. Think about which of the following you are drawn to: Dancing vs dreaming. Presence vs planning. Vibrancy vs ambition. Laughter vs preparation. Play vs worry. Family vs career. Being preoccupied with what is vs what could be. Feeling vs meaning.
What’s Your Subjective/Objective Balance?
A true philosopher would take issue with time as a basic axis of a universal duality, and point out that the real contrast here is that of Subjectivity vs Objectivity. I agree, for the Present is truly subjective – it varies depending on which perspective you take, whose When you decide to pin the Now on. My Now is not always your Now. But the Future is always there; we all share it as an abstract concept. What matters in my future can affect anyone else’s in theory, but my Now only affects those near me in space or time. Indeed, that is one theory as to why procrastination is so pervasive – we conceive of our future selves as different people, and thus leave our Present problems for ‘some other person’.
Phrased this way, it is not a question of what is good for you now vs later but what is good for you vs for anyone. Again, ‘good’ here simply means that which brings about desirable consequences, that which brings about the life that you want. Now we’re getting into dangerous utilitarian territory, yes, but think about how many existing concepts fit into this duality.
Think of Art vs Science, Opinions vs Facts, or Beauty vs Truth. One is subjective, and the other objective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but truth by definition is that which all can agree on, or that which corresponds to reality. Science is the closest thing to objective we can get – carried out correctly, the scientific method is exactly that which uncovers ‘true’ concepts, things that exist whether or not we accept them.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson says: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”.You and I may disagree about the mastery of the Mona Lisa and both be right, but we can hardly disagree about the First Law of Thermodynamics without one of us being wrong.
Returning readers will notice that this Subjective/Objective axis is a universal framework built to couch my previous question: “Would you rather die happy or significant?” Happiness is no doubt important for a life well lived. But happiness is a subjective mix of brain chemicals for one sentient ape, and doesn’t extend to others. There are many people (myself included) who are not satisfied with that, who must leave some kind of objective mark on the world in order to live well, in order to matter.
Now I know what to call such people – Objectively oriented. Maybe Shaw and I have some kind of personality defect, to want anything more than a long happy life filled with loving friends and family. That may be, but to me, Kerouc’s hedonism looks just as ridiculous. Neither of us are ‘right’, we just disagree on the optimal Present/Future balance.
This doesn’t tell you how to live well, it’s just a conceptual framework to look at your decisions with. But I’ve already gained tremendous insight through identifying this duality, and recognizing that others have different present/future preferences than I do. It’s the kind of fundamental understanding to build a philosophy on, in sharing best practices for living well subjectively or objectively, for the present or the future.
Now that I know this, I see it everywhere. And I’m not the only one – for example, the 7 deadly sins of Christianity are bad because they “are forms of Idoltry-of-Self, where the subjective reigns over the objective”. I’m not making this up! It’s just the clearest way I’ve found to put things.
What do you say? Does this framework make objective sense, or only subjectively to me? Have you ever thought about something similar? What are some other opposite pairings to add to the list?