Getting To Good
As I was driving to a friend’s house, I passed the Dublin Pub, a local watering hole known for its live music. On the reader board, one band’s name caught my eye: Spontaneous Woo.
I did a little digging and learned that the band hails from Bay City, Michigan and offers a funk/jazz blend. The term “spontaneous woo” refers to an audience response often seen during concerts in which a rising tide of enthusiasm culminates in a distinctive eruption of happy exclamations.
Now, there’s a universal human experience. There is nothing quite like letting out a joyous, spontaneous “Woo!” when things are going our way. We might personalize our woo, making it come out as “Yesss!” or “Sweeeeeet” or even “Woo-HOO!”
There’s an appropriate word for this in every language. No matter what elicits this response, we know it means something good has happened. We recognize these woos, whether inspired by simple pleasures or major milestones, as a celebration of goodness. What makes us woo tells us a whole lot about what we value, and what we value is all that is “good”.
What is “good”? How do we define it?
The British poet, W.H. Auden, said: “Goodness is easier to recognize than to define.” Isn’t that the truth!
We know “good” when we see it, just like we know when something is woo-worthy. Putting this into words in a consistent way is tough. This is where your personal philosophy comes in. Realize that your ideas of what makes a life “good” come from the people you know, the books you’ve read, the movies you’ve seen, and a host of influences you can’t remember right now.
We use “good” to describe everything from a haircut to a mathematical theory. Essentially, something is “good” if it satisfies a certain expectation we have of it–it hits the target. A “good” cup of coffee could be strong, weak, bitter, sweet, milky, steaming hot, black, organic, shade-grown, or free, depending on what you value.
“Good” may be a moving target, but Aristotle happened to like the whole idea of targets. He used the Greek word “telos” which was the term used to describe an archery bulls-eye. It’s a simple mental image–a big circle with a dot in the middle.
Teleology refers to the study of the purpose of things. Aristotle believed that everything in nature has a purpose, or target. A thing is good if it serves its purpose, fulfills its mission, or hits its target. The whole world is made up of these interrelated purposes.
According to Aristotle, our purpose is to think in order to live a good life. We’re supposed to use our brains to contemplate, to appreciate the complexity of the universe, to attain greater understanding of our role as humans, and to be happy. By fulfilling our role as thinkers, we are living to purpose-we are living a good life.
What does that mean exactly? What do we use as guidelines or markers to help us determine if we are getting close to good?
If, as Aristotle says, our purpose is to live a good life and be happy, why isn’t there some simple formula we can apply to everyone? What’s the minimum woo-quotient of a good life? Can we be happy if we’re not living a good life? Can we live a good life if we’re not happy?
How much do we need to be happy? We all know plenty of people who never seem to be happy no matter how much they have. One of our greatest challenges as humans is figuring out how much is enough.
Aristotle believed that we need to use courage, honesty and moderation in pursuing pleasure. He considered moral goodness and enjoyment in life as the same thing. He believed it was okay to pursue anything you want, as long as you don’t go overboard. This concept of moderation became known as the “golden mean”.
Not surprisingly, this golden mean became a popular idea, especially among the rich. It was just what they wanted to hear! Remember that the majority of Aristotle’s students were wealthy–who else had the time to study philosophy all day? Aristotle himself ended up being handsomely paid–especially for a philosopher!
Aristotle had his work cut out for him trying to remain moral while becoming wealthy. His most famous student, the classic overachiever Alexander the Great, clearly never got the point about moderation. Aristotle’s emphasis on the golden mean got lost in all the excitement about pursuing whatever you like.
Hmmmm. Sounds a lot like modern life, doesn’t it?
What kind of life would Aristotle suggest we live in the midst of all the stuff of the 21st century? What does moderation mean now?
Wealthy people are not necessarily more or less moral than anyone else, but they ARE tested more than the rest of us. They have the means to live an excessive lifestyle if they choose to do so. If you live large, your morality–or lack thereof–is magnified for the world to see. Add a dash of celebrity and a stint on TV, and you start serving as some sort of example.
This is where we get confused between “a good life” and “the good life”.
We’re fascinated by the choices people make when they have the ability to live any way they choose. We read magazines featuring photographs of celebrities in their homes. We watch television shows that give us tours of the properties owned by billionaires. We’re both fascinated and repelled by reality shows that offer riches to those who manipulate others.
Why? It’s because we’re curious about the choices made, and we wonder what we would do given the same set of circumstances.
Seeing the homes, the furnishings, and the cars gives us an idea of what is valued by the individual. We watch because we wonder what choices we would make if we had the same bank account. Would we be extravagant? Would we live simply? Would we be tacky or tasteful? Would we horrify the neighbors or build a better community? Would our children be kind, compassionate, and generous, or would they be self-centered brats with a huge sense of entitlement?
Would we be like Sting–or Ozzy Osbourne? Would we have daughters like Sofia Coppola–or Paris Hilton?
Most of us have the, uh, good fortune of not being tempted to live without limits. Without being fully tested, we don’t really know how we’d fare in a world of big money and bigger visibility.
The wonderful thing about living a good life is that it is possible to do it at any economic level. You can live a good life in poverty or wealth. Though we tend to think it’s a lot easier to be an excellent human when we have sufficient funds in the bank, both versions–rich and poor–come with plenty of challenges.
It’s tempting to put off becoming your best self until you believe you have the financial support to do it. “I’ll be generous once I get to the top,” you think. “I’ll be kinder when I’m not so stressed.” “I’ll give back to the community when I retire.”
There’s no dollar amount that precludes or guarantees a good life, and there’s no reason to postpone your own greatness. You may win the lottery tomorrow, or you may lose everything. Despite any dramatic shifts in your personal fortune, you can live a good life today.
Note and relish your own spontaneous woos on a daily basis, and look for ways to increase and deepen them. Think, be happy, and share that wealth in words, wit, and warmth.
The good life never felt so good.