Why does your life matter? A personal story and a challenge to readers

I recently read a book inspired by Marcus Aurelius’ famous Meditations, William Ferraiolo’s Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure. Despite the fact that I endorsed it when I was asked to examine a pre-publication copy, I now think it is an example of what I term “dark Stoicism,” and I have explained in a full length review why it does not make for a good reading for people interested in a positive philosophy of life.

Nevertheless, there are some interesting bits in it, and one in particular struck me as worth reflecting. It’s a question Ferraiolo poses in chapter 30, section 7 (p. 162 in my electronic version), and it goes like this:

“Is there one attainment to which you can point and say, with confidence and sincerity, ‘that is why my life mattered’? If you were to write out a comprehensive list of your virtues and admirable achievements, how much paper and ink would you need?”

In context, this is part of Ferraiolo’s tendency to brooding and self flagellation. But I figured it would be interesting for me -- a self-described reasonable optimist -- to take up the challenge and see what would come out of it. So brace yourself, as this is going to get personal. Before we get into the thick of it, however, let me stress that what you are about to read is not just someone else’s critical self reflections, it’s an invitation for you to do the very same thing, though not necessarily in public as I’m doing here. After all, according to Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth living…

The first thing I can be confident about in this context is that it wouldn’t take too much ink (or e-ink, as the case may be) to list the reasons I think my life -- so far (I am 54) -- has been worth living. The second thing we need to agree on is that there isn’t an objective, universal standard of worth to be applied here. Different people will regard both their own and others’ accomplishments as more or less worthy of attention. Still, I think it is fair to say that my life has been far more worthy than Hitler’s (okay, really low bar!), and far less than Socrates’ (very high bar!). You get the gist.

In order to better organize my thoughts, I figured it would be helpful to break down the analysis in terms of a number of categories that are important not just to me, but to people in general: love, family, friends, and career. Let’s take them up one by one.

Love. Ouch. This is arguably my worst category. Can I pass? No, I guess that wouldn’t be fair. Fine, then, I have to admit that I’ve been far from a success in that department. Not only I find myself middle aged and single, but I have gone through a number of long term relationships (and a fair number of marriages) by making a series of predictable, often repeated, mistakes. I have been fortunate enough to meet and fall in love with several women who would be other guys’ dream (and a certain number who wouldn’t, but that’s life), and yet I was not able to hold on to the relationship. My longest one lasted seven years, and my average is around five.

There are, of course, all sorts of psychological reasons for this pattern, some of them rooted in my childhood. Then again, for how long is it reasonable for an adult man to keep blaming his parents for what he is doing decades later? Don’t answer, this is a purely rhetorical question.

Will I be able to do better in the future? Well, hope springs eternal, as they say, and I think I’ve learned a thing or two. But as a good friend of mine recently told me, don’t worry Massimo, one of these times it’s going to be the last one, that you want it or not…

So we begin our analysis with a somewhat negative balance. Not good.

Family. Okay, in this department things are mixed, which means better than in the previous one! As you might have surmised from the above, I did not have a good relationship with either of my parents, though things improved somewhat before they died, especially with my father. Out of my two brothers and one sister, I have an excellent relationship with two, and I keep trying with the third one. As Epictetus puts it:

“Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite — that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.” (Enchiridion 43)

I’m working on picking up that particular cup by the right handle...

Meanwhile, the aspect of this category that really brings up my score, I think, is my daughter. I have honestly always been supportive of her, and I sense that we have a very, very solid and good relationship. So, to begin to answer Ferraiolo, this is the first item I would put on my list of “why my life mattered.” What is it you say? Big deal, a parent is supposed to be supportive to his children? Well, have you met my parents?

Friends. Aristotle said that your friends are mirrors to your soul, you have to be able to have the sort of relationship with them that they would feel comfortable looking you in the eyes and telling you that you are not doing something right. They are not just here for a drink or movie night, they are here to support you but also to help you become a better person. So I guess he wasn’t talking about Facebook friends… 

By Aristotle’s high standards, I’m doing okay. I do have a small number of friends that fit the bill, and a small number is all you can have, really, because actual friendship requires effort and time. When someone tells you that they have hundreds of friends they simply don’t understand the meaning of the word. So put this one down as a second entry in my obituary: he also had friends.

Career. Ah, this is going to take some time, and not just because I’ve had two distinct careers in academia -- one as a biologist, from the mid-1980s to 2008, the other as a philosopher, from 2009 on. It’s also because I’ve had, and am still developing, a number of sub-careers. So let’s organize things.

To begin with, we need to separate my output as a biologist from that as a philosopher. Within each sub-category, we need to distinguish my academic writings from my public ones. And then there is my teaching, and therefore my students.

At last count, I have published 87 papers as a biologist, 71 as a philosopher, plus five technical books as a biologist and two as a philosopher. But these are just numbers. How many of these do I actually count as worth listing in the context of the current discussion? Two: my first book as a biologist (Phenotypic Evolution: A Reaction Norm Perspective) and my first one as a philosopher (Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem). Phenotypic Evolution, co-written with my PhD advisor, Carl Schlichting, helped put what is now called the Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, the new version of evolutionary theory, on the map, so I think we did a good service to the field. Philosophy of Pseudoscience (co-edited with my friend Maarten Boudry) basically started up that sub-field from scratch and re-opened anew the discussion in philosophy of science about the demarcation problem, the distinction between science and pseudoscience, which had been dormant for decades.

The rest of my academic production varies from irrelevant (though it didn’t seem so at the moment!) to okay but certainly nothing one would want to brag about on his deathbed. This conclusion, as you might imagine, is humbling. And I’m not a humble kind of guy.

What about my public writings? I’ve done that since the mid-’80s in Italy first, then in the US, having published so far four books on popular science and skepticism and two on popular philosophy. Of these, the ones I think were definitely worth the effort where Nonsense on Stilts: How To Tell Science from Bunk (second edition coming very soon) and How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy To Live a Modern Life. Interestingly, these are also by far my best sellers.

But while Nonsense on Stilts was fun and has hopefully been useful here and there, How to Be A Stoic has generated the sort of feedback that definitely goes on my short list of answers to Ferraiolo’s question. Lots of people have told me that their life has been impacted and significantly changed for the better by reading the book. Great part of the merit, of course, goes to Stoic philosophy, not me. But even the best philosophy needs good popularizers, and besides I have introduced a few minor tweaks of my own to contribute to the update of ancient to modern Stoicism. I can’t tell you how good it feels to know you are actually helping people with your writings.

And there is yet another aspect of my work that I feel good about: my teaching. I have now taught countless undergraduate students and a fair number of graduate students. It’s a priceless experience when you see the light bulb suddenly going off in the mind of an undergraduate who had not appreciated philosophy before (I cannot recall the same experience with my biology students). And I’m proud of having helped my graduate students and postdocs find good jobs, having thus contributed in a positive manner to their lives.

The moral of the story, and a challenge. So at age 54, prompted by Ferraiolo’s question, I have reflected on my “list of virtues and admirable achievements” and have arrived at the following, perhaps not surprising, conclusions: what I think mattered so far in my life are my daughter, my friends, my students, and the people who I don’t know and yet have managed to help through the miracle of writing. Oh, and I did a couple of things to slightly advance my professional field. On the relationship thing… still working on it, Fate permitting.

So now I invite you to reflect on your own answers to the Ferraiolo challenge: Is there one attainment to which you can point and say, with confidence and sincerity, ‘that is why my life mattered’? If you were to write out a comprehensive list of your virtues and admirable achievements, how much paper and ink would you need?

Think about it, answer it sincerely (and no, you don’t have to do it publicly, as I did here), and then use it as a starting point to begin the rest of your life.

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