My friend, Charles, asked me a question yesterday. He is wont to pop profound questions to me unexpectedly—questions that make me think. He asked me what is the secret for living a good life.
“Why me?” I asked him. Because I think you are living a good life, he replied. Which made me think. Do “I” think ‘’I” am living a good life? Which led me to think more deeply, who am “I”? Which is something I have thought about a lot since I was a teenager, the time in life when children become most self-conscious about how they are judged by others.
I became curious about what was going on in Charles’s mind. What was his idea of a “good life”, and how come he thought I was leading a good life (regardless of whether I felt the same way of my own life)?
He said that he was observing how other people of my age (I am 78 now), and many much younger than me too, do not seem to be as productive and creative as I am. I continue to read and write, and perhaps am doing even more than I was before. Other people of my age seem to be “passing time” in comparison—living on, but not “living” as well. Moreover, I seem to be very curious, according to Charles, about what young people think and am very respectful of their views. My circle of friends seems to be widening, whereas other older people seem to have become immersed in their own circles, and indifferent or cynical about what is happening in the wider world around them.
Maybe that is the clue to living well, I said to Charles. Keep learning; be curious; explore new ideas; listen to more people “not like yourself”.
My mother, who passed away when she was 97, living as independently as she could till the end, would brush aside my brothers’ and my concerns about her failing health. She said she wanted to add more life to her years, not years to her life. She always wanted to explore and learn more till the very end. When learning stops, living stops, and only existence continues, she said.
There is a Greek word for what she taught me. It is “Neoteny”, which means holding onto youthfulness. Evolutionary biologists have noticed that the young ones, in those species that are more emotionally and mentally evolved, spend longer proportions of their lives in a learning phase before they become doers. Human children are kept in education much longer by their parents, and shielded from the real world, before being sent out to look after themselves than baby birds, for example. The chicks are turned out of the nest as soon as they can flap their wings and fly.
One doesn’t have to be in a formal school to learn. In fact, formal education seems to be about shoving information into a child’s brain, whether the child is curious about the subject or not. “Just in case” the information is useful to pass some exam and move on to the next stage of life. Where, once again, one must meet the expectations of those above, and be promoted further. Until, finally, the ‘career’ ends, one retires, and sinks into an existence of adding years to one’s life, in the pleasant company of others like oneself, on golf courses, WhatsApp groups, or wherever else others like oneself gather.
When one is younger, there is much to be learned from older people. When one is much older, there is much more to be learned from younger people, who are still curious and eager to learn. I am learning to live again by reliving the curiosity about the world around her that my ten-year-old granddaughter has.
I am learning greatly from young people in their twenties and thirties who turn to me with questions about why the world is as it is, and what they can do to make it a good world for everyone. My generation of leaders and experts has failed, Greta Thunberg dramatically declared in the UN General Assembly. I am part of all those who thought they knew, and find it hard to admit that they did not know. I don’t have answers for my young friends. All I can say to them is that they must be better learners than we were and continue to learn all their lives. I continue to learn with them.
As we go on in life, we acquire an identity of who we are, which is largely shaped by what others say we are: the positions and ranks they give us, and how they treat us. We spend our lives trying to look good to others for the sake of our “self-respect”. Am “I” only what others see me as? Isn’t there another “I” inside me which looks out at them and into the world? The problem is how can “I” see this “I”? This is the recursive problem that confounds “The Mind’s I”, which is the title of a compilation of essays on “self and soul” by the mathematician and cognitive scientist, Douglas Hofstadter, and the philosopher, Daniel Dennett.
The Mind’s I begins with a very short essay, “Borges and I”, by the writer Jorge Luis Borges. It is only two paragraphs long, the second of which is a single sentence.
In the first paragraph Borges writes:
“The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors… It would be an exaggeration to say that ours is a hostile relationship; I live, I let myself go on living, so that Borges may contrive his literature, and this literature justifies me… I shall remain in Borges, not in myself (if it is true that I am someone.)
The second para is the punch line:
“I do know which of us has written this page”.
Jorges’s question about himself has been a cue for me to often wonder. When I am speaking, is it the “official” me who is speaking? We hide our real “I” behind identities we must wear so that others can know who we are. Am I saying only what I am expected to say to look good? Or do I have the courage to speak from my own heart and my own mind?
When I am listening to another, am I listening to the “I” within the other, or to the person that the other has got used to, and wants to, be seen as?
When Charles asks me, with respect for me, how I live well, will I “lose face” with him if I say “I” do not know?
When I think my word must be the last word, it is my ego that is thinking. When I think I know all that needs to be known about a subject, I stop learning further. My neoteny ends. And with that, my living well will end too.