The Art of Life

For all the jokes that are made about New Year Resolutions – jokes about how the diet lasts one week, or how the new exercise regime is enthusiastically written down but never practised – I feel there is nevertheless something of profound value in the technique of reflecting upon one’s own life for the purpose of evaluating it and then willfully improving it. The Greek and Roman Stoics were keen advocates of this form of self-cultivation, although they practiced it every day, not once a year. The Stoics conceived of life as ‘raw material’ which individuals were responsible for sculpting. From this perspective, it could be said, we are all artists of life; the world, our canvas.

Of course, we don’t get to choose the raw material we work with, and the form of our lives is inevitably shaped, at least in part, by the world around us. That is, we exist both as creatures and creators. But insofar as we believe that we are free to make our own decisions, then we are responsible for our own lives in much the same way the sculptor is responsible for the statue; the painter for the canvas; the poet, the poem. When you think about it, this responsibility is both terrifying and exhilarating. As the French existentialists were fond of declaring, we can always make something new out of what we have been made into.

At risk of being the butt of the next New Year joke, I began today by going for run. I ran (and sometimes walked) to the top of a ridge overlooking the city and the habour. There I found an old park bench waiting for me, upon which I sat for an hour or so absorbing the majestic view and thinking about the world and my place in it; life and its possibilities.

What bad habits had I fallen into last year that I should try to leave behind? Were there privileges or relationships in my life that I had taken for granted? What attitudes do I want to define my life in this coming year? What mistakes did I make last year that I don’t want to repeat? In short, how could I willfully make my life better this year, not just for my own sake, but for those around me?

How I answered these questions is both personal and uninteresting, so I won’t bother anyone with the details. But I do wish to suggest that they are important questions, worthy of our attention. It’s easy just to go with the flow of life and passively let the current lead us. However, to practise freedom requires an active engagement with life, especially for those of us resisting the status quo by exploring the simple life.

In 2011, therefore, let us squeeze more out of life than we had ever dared to imagine possible. I look forward to joining you on the adventure.

In simplicity,
Samuel Alexander

2 Responses to “The Art of Life”

  1. Simon says:

    I certainly agree with the value in this kind of reflection – perhaps a useful resolution would be to pause for more regular reflection and … more resolutions.

  2. Thank you Samuel for this reflective piece on New Year’s resolutions and the art of life. The questions you offer for us to contemplate are so vital, so utterly worthy of our attention!

    I have often pondered over why New Year’s resolutions fail for most people most of the time. Human nature has a tendency to focus on the negative and most people give up even before they have truly tried.

    It is not only that we often lack – for whatever reasons – the ongoing commitment that is required to meet our personal goals. It is also because we commonly fail to truly question the purpose for it in the first place and how it connects with ourselves. As a result, as soon as we think we are failing, we give up. Psychology has shown that we usually focus on the downside of not achieving our goals. A sense of loss of self-control adds to this and rather than starting anew every single day, we give up instead. This, of course, is intimately linked to our inner critical voice, our negative self-talk.

    The solution lies, as you highlight so well in your post, in reflecting on important questions. Only when we understand the meaning behind our often so feeble resolutions, only when such resolutions connect and resonate with our innermost self, can we commit to whatever it is we want to achieve. And only then can we stay committed, even when we fail. Because failure then can become the powerful catalyst for trying again and again and again.

    May the New Year for you be filled with love, health, joy, laughter and lots of mindful moments.

    Christine Maingard, Author of THINK LESS BE MORE

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