Living Well Means Recognizing Three Facts of Our Existence

Impermanence, the potential for dissatisfaction, and a profound lack of a fixed, independent self

If there’s a central trust to my writing lately, and to my broader scholarly project, it’s this: Talking about politics in isolation—talking about preferable policies, or the structure of political institutions—is valuable, but it misses most of why our contemporary political environment feels so toxic and dysfunctional, and why so many people feel so unhappy in our modern and politicized world. Rather, what’s really going on is a failure of ethics. Thus (just) getting the right policies in place, or tweaking our institutions here and there, won’t fix things. Instead, we need to begin with what it means to live ethically, understand the connection between that and happiness and contentment, and then how it all ties into being citizens of a dynamic, pluralistic, and, yes, political world.

That’s why my last handful of posts here have been a big step back, an attempt to sketch a general picture of ethics and the good life, so we have a framework through which to better understand specific social and political maladies. (For example, why social conservatism isn’t just the wrong way to view the ideal society, but also a cause of persistent suffering for social conservatives themselves.)

In “This is the Good Life,” I offered a very short, very high level summary of this ethical perspective, and in “Barriers in the Way of an Ethical Life,” I discussed some of the reasons we find it such a difficult goal to achieve. Today, I want to discuss the fundamental nature of humanity, the raw facts of our existence that form the initial substrate upon which our ethical quest must build.

All of us intuitively crave stability. Whether it’s the hope for lasting happiness, relationships that never change, or clinging to our sense of who we are, we have a deep discomfort with the reality of constant change. Yet, if we look honestly at life, both internally and externally, three truths present themselves: impermanence, the potential for dissatisfaction, and a profound lack of a fixed, independent self.

Impermanence. Everything is in flux. Relationships come and go, bodies age, even mountains, over vast scales of time, erode and vanish. Nothing stays the same: not circumstances, our physical being, or even our inner landscape of thoughts and emotions.

Dissatisfaction. A sense that something is always a bit “off” exists beneath the surface of our daily life. While joy and pleasure exist, even those experiences become tinged with dissatisfaction when we try to make them permanent. Life’s pleasures vanish quickly, or at least are constantly at risk of doing so. Yet, a deeper discontent arises from our very craving for things to be other than they are, creating conflict with the inevitable reality of change.

The Self. This is a tricky concept. There’s a feeling of “I” at the center of experience. However, what is this “I” when we closely examine it? Instead of permanent solidity, we find a dynamic stream of sensations, thoughts, memories, and self-images. Who we are right now is based on influences from our past, our biology, and a continuous process of change. The illusion of a static, autonomous “self” generates friction when the nature of life is constant flux.

These features of existence aren’t a cause for despair but an invitation to see reality clearly. It’s our resistance to the flow of impermanence and our search for lasting satisfaction in what won’t, and can’t, provide it that fuels our suffering. Clinging to this false idea of a separate, permanent self only reinforces this inner conflict.

This all sounds rather grim. But such an assessment deceives, because recognizing these features makes clear the path leading to acceptance of them, and the happiness that brings. Seeing impermanence allows us to appreciate fleeting moments without clinging to them. Acknowledging our dissatisfaction encourages us to investigate where we are seeking fulfillment in the wrong places. When we recognize the dynamic and impermanent nature of the self, it fosters humility and the possibility of living with less need to defend or inflate this fleeting construct we call “I.”

Understanding these marks takes time and mindful observation of our everyday lives. But through this process, we begin to live in greater harmony with the nature of reality. Instead of chasing an impossible permanence, true fulfillment might be found in accepting the fleeting flow, finding inner contentment, and cultivating a gentle, and less harmful, outlook.

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