“Mortality offers meaning to our lives and morality helps navigate that meaning.”
-Todd May, Death: The Art of Living
What I’m Watching: The Good Place
Last month, I binge-watched The Good Place. In addition to it being a delightful show to watch, its moral-philosophy-inspired dialogue interrogates the age-old questions: What makes a person good? Who aspires to do the right thing and who is interested in just getting by? How does a “point system” determine out chances of getting into the Good Place in the afterlife? Does how we live and interact with each other matter in the scheme of the universe?
The answer to what makes someone “good” cannot be reduced to a simple equation. One answer is that our imperfection is what makes us good — as humans, we have little to no desire for a real utopia — it’s the constant unpredictability of life’s ups and downs that makes us appreciate the goodness inside of us and in the world at large. Our lives are formed by conflicting moments of joy and loss, love and heartbreak, comfort and suffering — one opposite cannot exist without the other. A frictionless existence is often meaningless and even unfulfilling. It’s the intention of trying to get it right that allows us to get one step closer to the best version of ourselves and get closer to the people in our orbit.
The show also urges us to make the most of life while we’re in it — and what makes life fulfilling is how we show up for others.
“I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.”
What I’m Learning: Virtues in Action
Aristotle believed that we must live by moral virtues (ideal character traits that can be inherited or practiced) that inform our feelings, decisions, and actions. These virtues are instilled in us from our parents and our life experiences. When our virtues are reflected into values, we are moving beyond ourselves and into the world; we are observing, learning from others, and building habits, which in turn gives us meaning and fulfillment.
“Wisdom is knowing what to do next — virtue is doing it.”
-David Starr Jordan
Therefore, living a virtuous or “good” life is about loving, accepting, and learning from others, despite their flaws. It is about dealing with life’s overwhelming questions in a positive way: realizing that we are all going through life together, no matter how distanced we may be.
Virtue signaling — talking about one’s moral or virtuous attributes — is meaningless and is not akin to a commitment to learning and growing through actions and deeds. Living your values, not speaking them, is part of a virtuous existence.
In philanthropy, “goodness” is defined as the “public good.” When we are looking to serve, we begin by exploring our virtues and our “inner” self: What motivates me to wake up in the morning? What is most important to me? While identifying our values, we apply our virtues outward: Where do I belong? What is the problem I want to help solve? Where can my strengths be best utilized for the welfare of others?
“We share two values that are a big part of why we started our foundation.
Both of us were taught to give back and be optimistic about the future.”
-Bill and Melinda Gates
It is worth applying every part of yourself, including your intellect, to the question of how to do the right thing. Surround yourself with friends who love you and love them deeply, and you will grow. As humans, we can’t help it — we have a natural inclination to support each other to cultivate our virtues and transform them into values, and we connect each other with people, causes, and communities that help us heal, thrive, and find fulfillment together.
What I’m Appreciating: Nurturing Relationships
When I sat down next to a crying baby to take the red eye home from Los Angeles earlier this week, I momentarily wondered if it was worth the trouble. It was an impromptu and brief visit to accomplish the dual purpose of helping my oldest son get resettled after the pandemic interrupted life for all of us and brought him home to his parents for an extended period of time, and reconnecting with my lifelong friends who had been vaccinated and some of whom were even ready for a hug. Some I saw for days at a time, some I saw for only a few hours. Each encounter was gratifying, and full of love and laughter. The trip fed my soul in every way. Indeed, it was worth it.
Thinking about this past week makes my heart both soar and ache. There is nothing like spending time with old friends to connect you to your source, the essence of who you really are. We’ve all surpassed the half century mark and, while we expect that we have plenty of time left here on this Earth, it makes a difference both how and with whom we spend that precious time. A year of not seeing those whom you love dearly can force you to reevaluate your life, your relationships, and the way that you engage in them and in the world at large. When we are faced with our own mortality and that of our loved ones, we find ourselves flooded with gratitude for their presence.