I have made a hobby of reading great thinkers. I wanted to originally make a career of studying them, but the minutiae involved in the academic side of studying great minds proved too taxing (I'd say mundane, but I'd hate to insult any philosophy professors who might be reading this). I have always been particularly drawn to those who deal in Ethics. That's a dangerous word to use, because it usually evokes numerous impressions in the perceiver. None of which I probably intended. I'm talking about Ethics, with a capital 'E'. I'm not talking about right/wrong, good/bad, God's will/intrinsic good distinctions. I'm talking about attempting to answer the question, "What does it mean to live a good life?" Again, don't mistake good as in moral good, but good like "that was a good beer". I think this is really the original purpose of Ethics. We've sort of bastardized the meaning into something that roughly means, "How do I decide what is right and wrong, when there are conflicting values in play?" Sartre does a beautiful job illustrating this in Being and Nothingness, when he talks about his student who must choose between fighting against the Nazis or caring for his mother. Without going into too much detail, we can see how both would be really good things and based on your take on the world, one may be better than the other. Congratulations, you now know as much as a sophomore at a liberal arts college.
So after reading Aristotle, Aquinas, Jesus, Buddha, Plato, Rawls, Sartre, etc. I set out to formulate my own ethical path, to try and devise my blue print for leading a good life. There is no word in English that does a good job of describing what this ultimate goal is. In religion it would be heaven or nirvana. I want to call it "the big happy". A happiness that is complete and self sustaining. So I took little pieces of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and tried to Know Thyself, and do nothing to excess. I bought deep into Sartre and tried to live in the moment. I pulled pieces of Buddha's teaching of non-attachment and sought a life uncluttered by desire. What I ended up with was a constant sense of yearning and second guessing. The biggest problem was that I kept running into conflicts along the way. Who knew that Aquinas wasn't going to jive with Confucius?!
I put this quest on the shelf and concentrated on everything else. I got a real job (not teaching philosophy). I got a wife, a house, some hobbies, I traveled, I started attending mass regularly. Once I did all the modern, proscribed paths and attainments, the question popped up again and stared me dead in the face. I imagine this is when those who are unprepared for the question drop into a midlife crisis. Lucky for me, I had a quarterlife crisis to prep me for it. The interesting thing is that the answer was so obvious, that I was amazed that I hadn't come upon before. It was definitely an epiphany, a discovery, and not anything I had created. The discovery is that there is a central theme to all of these thinkers and I had never seen it. My original thought was that we are supposed to be turning our eye inward, perfecting ourselves. I then moved on to the idea that we are supposed to live our life for others and turn outward, being completely selfless. My next step was thinking that happiness was sort of process based, that our relationships determine our level of satisfaction and sense of wholeness.
What I didn't see was that these are all interconnected. Every single great ethicist has stated pretty much the same thing. We must set ourselves up as examples. Sartre says that we are solely responsible for our existence and in turn how live is a statement to the rest of the world that this is the best life possible. Christianity stated that we are the light of the world. Every one you read has an example of this kind of language. Essentially, we are to be the person that we want the world to be. An obvious statement if ever there was one, but that still doesn't state what one does to achieve that. And don't we all have different visions of what the perfect world would be like? To answer that I took a page from Kant. We are human beings, persons, and in essence, want to be treated as such. Then in order to be treated like such, I must create a world where that happens. Therefore, I need to treat everyone like people. I need to really think about that what that means. Simple things like being patient in traffic or making eye contact with the person behind the register are a start. That leads to bigger steps, like ensuring those around me can become fulfilled and that I am not simply using them as vehicles to my happiness. Until finally there is the apex of the life well lived, not from selflessness, but from selfishness. My desire to live in a world where I am treated as someone special and important, drives me to treat others as special and important. I need to keep myself grounded at this moment and not degenerate into the feel good, "everyone is special" mindset that is plaguing our society today. The road to happiness is paved with humility. That humility is the certainty that my happiness is contingent on helping others to that place and allowing myself to be helped by them.