Trying to lead a valid life

The toughest obstacle in scaling the mountain toward a valid life, I have come to believe, is that it has become so much of a solo climb in today’s America.

A decade ago I wrote, “My father-in-law led his life better than anyone I have known intimately.” He was a beloved doctor in the area where he grew up. He wasn’t a saintly, famous or powerful man, but by giving much more than he took in life he built a great life and legacy.

In what turned out to be his last days, when his prognosis was uncertain and the ultimate of decisions loomed, he told me in a strained, urgent voice, “I don’t want to be an invalid. But I also don’t want to be invalid.”

I knew exactly what he meant and was dazzled he could articulate it so eloquently and cleverly while so sick.

“You mean you don’t want to go on if you can’t contribute and keep earning your way on the planet?” I said. “You don’t want to be a ‘me-firster.’” ‘Me-firster’ is a phrase he used raising his kids, and it was passed on to mine.

I hold that exchange closer than ever 10 years later. The idea of a valid life has stayed with me; it signifies something richer than other words meant to describe a good life, such as meaningful, important or happy. The difficulty of forging a valid life daunts me more the older I get and the more I learn what I don’t know.

A valid life, as my father-in-law meant it, requires self-knowledge and high purpose, more than luck and success. It requires more than the pluck, drive and self-reliance called for in the classic Yankee recipe for worthiness. It requires you to know what valid means by your own measure, what values, virtues and, most importantly, efforts matter most. And it requires help from others — love, family and community.

I may be very wrong, but I sense that this is an especially hard time for individuals to forge valid lives. I also have a hunch that is the fundamental fount of our political meanness and cultural toxicity.

The toughest obstacle in scaling the mountain toward a valid life, I have come to believe, is that it has become so much of a solo climb in today’s America. I mean that in two senses.

The 20th century was a graveyard for old, tested, and, yes, diverse belief systems and moral traditions that worked fairly well in steering lives for a long time despite their fatal flaws.

The pointless, mechanized slaughter of World War I destroyed faith and order for a generation, giving rise to a tough philosophy of existentialism that has continuously battled organized religion. The Holocaust and genocide in Russia moved history in an ever more grim direction.

Despite one of the greatest economic booms in recorded history after the Second World War, America, beginning in the 1960s, saw its traditional and varied “stories” lose much of their power, including organized religion, patriotism, a puritan-born work ethic and basic traditionalism. Much good came from this, particularly the expansion of civil rights. But there were costs for people looking to find guides and maps to the valid life.

At the same time, families became more mobile and more scattered. Americans were less likely to live near extended family, grandparents and crazy uncles — customary sources of life advice, wanted or unwanted. They were more likely to live at arm’s length among strangers in suburbs and then exurbs. Institutions that carried social and especially civic cohesion shrank: churches, congregations, Elks Lodges, Boy Scouts, PTAs and garden clubs. Now technology, screens and smart gadgets threaten to isolate us even more.

One way of gauging the vacuum caused by these sorts of social changes is looking at the decades-long explosion of the self-help boom — books, television, celebrity gurus; at the proliferation of alternative and evangelical religions; at how Americans have become more tribal — Democrats more Democratic, Republicans more Republican, 1 percenters further above the 99 percenters than ever before.

Social scientists have ways to make the case that it has been harder for Americans to procure contentment, even as material conditions relentlessly improved. Public opinion research shows declines in how happy people say they are. Psychiatric research shows increased rates of depression and social isolation in many demographic groups. And now economists can show how real wealth and income has declined for a vast chunk of America since the 1980s.

I don’t find statistics especially persuasive. But they comport with what I have observed in the world and in the culture. I have been looking carefully for a long time.

It is hard for me to imagine that there is any way that the amorphous thing we call “society” can respond to these sorts of maladies deliberately. Certainly government cannot.

That means individuals have to manage their own climbs toward the valid life. It has always been so, but perhaps there is less ready help than in days past. And that is where other individuals can help fill a need — parents first, but also teachers, friends, bosses and maybe even the next generation of columnists.

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