The Considered Life

Socrates is said to have remarked that, “The unconsidered life is not worth living.” He meant that failure to consider the effects of one’s acts leaves one exposed to the vagaries of fate and vulnerable to the acts of others. Further, a life without moral direction is at risk of excess and of the contempt and enmity of one’s fellows. A life so haphazard has little value, even to it’s possessor.

I believe most people would accept these propositions as true. Surely it’s better to live prudently, treating others kindly, seeking value in one’s self and in other people.

What, then, is a considered life? When one has contemplated one’s actions in a moral context and tried to foresee their consequences, has consideration reached it’s limit? Many, notably Socrates himself, have given answers, and many of the answers are good ones with which I have no disagreement. So why am I writing about it?

I think prudence and virtue are only the foundation for a considered life. The structure raised on this foundation should be pleasing aesthetically as well. It should be a life embraced, not simply endured, a life always looking for new experiences, ways, even, to convert onerous requirements or chores into opportunities for personal growth and fulfillment.

For example, we here in New Mexico are currently being asked to conserve water. To curtail water use is a good thing. To set up, in addition, a system to collect and use the water that would be lost as runoff in our occasional rainstorms would be a better, and more creative response, particularly  when incorporated into a landscape design featuring drouth-tolerant vegetation.

One may contribute money to a charitable cause.That is a virtuous act. One may also volunteer some of one’s time and talents. The advantage to the recipient cause is likely to be greater than that from an additional monetary donation, and one’s own life is enriched by the experience, and by the friends made in the process.

I choose these two examples because they are so mundane. Everyone is asked to show social responsibility, and most of us are asked to be charitable, perhaps more often than we’d like. These obligations may be viewed with annoyance and dispensed with as effortlessly and passively as possible, or they may be used as opportunities to extend ourselves, furthering an active engagement in life. Not that every cause is worthy of special attention, but most of us have favorites. Time and attention given to these help both the cause and the giver.

One could see the mandate and the request discussed above as examples of things to be avoided or gotten through as easily as possible. Only a more reflective person will see a chance for satisfying experiences.

A considered life is a creative life. Consideration is valuable when it alters our response to the world. When we step away from modes of thought and action dictated by habit, custom, and preconception because consideration shows them to be flawed, we have to act creatively to establish new ways to lead our lives.


What if…?

My characters are suffering satisfactorily. All hope seems lost. Doom, doom inescapable, is impending. This is good. This is as it should be. Satisfying fiction requires that the protagonist confront evidently insoluble difficulty, at least once in a short story, and several times in the course of a novel.

The trouble is, I’ve done too good a job. The seemingly hopeless situation I’ve constructed is, in fact, hopeless, at least as far as I can see. I suppose I could back up and change the story enough to provide a route of escape, but that’s not satisfactory. If my protagonist can easily find a way out, so can my readers, who will feel cheated. They expect suffering and hopelessness, pain, sorrow and the plausible threat of extinction, and will settle for nothing less. I’ve carefully closed the obvious modes of escape so well that now I’m stuck.

I think it’s time to ask, what if?

“What if?” is the place to start. True, the first half-dozen or so answers will probably be unusable. Either they won’t work, or they will provide solutions so contrived or artificial as to be useless. The villain, for example, can’t be struck down by a wheel adventitiously dropped by a passing airliner. He can’t be struck by lightning, or removed in any other ‘accidental’ way, at least not unless the scene is constructed to make such an event believable. Even if that can be done, the result is weak. The hero should release himself through his own effort if the result is to be satisfying.

If one looks at enough aspects of the protagonist’s predicament, and asks,”What if,” though, a satisfying answer will probably emerge eventually. Even the most carefully contrived entrapment is inevitably flawed.

“What if,” is a wonderful question. It presumes nothing, but instead it invites daydreams, and asks the imagination to come out and play.

In what passes for ‘real life’, “What if,” also has its place. Must one really choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledummer in an election? What if one wrote in the name of someone who might actually be able to do the job, and wrote to the newspaper or went on line to explain one’s choice? Wouldn’t that be a more satisfying use of one’s precious franchise than to choose the slightly lesser of two evident evils?

In every circumstance in which a limited number of choices seem available, one should ask, “What if…?” Even if one or more of the available choices is satisfactory, it doesn’t hurt to ask. After all, isn’t ‘good enough,’ the enemy of the best? Granted, often, good enough, is all we have time to look for, but where we can do it, asking, “what if,” may yield a spectacular answer.

“What if…? and similar questions force us to consider anew the assumptions we automatically make when constructing a story, or a course of action in life. May any who read this ask fruitfully, receiving creative and satisfying answers.