Szuhaj: My One Wild and Precious Life

Difficult questions are worth asking even if there are no clear answers.

by Ben Szuhaj | 2/19/19 2:05am

My intent was to write an article about U.S. tax reform — that’s why I went to Dirt Cowboy Café, my writing spot. I came in late in the afternoon, around closing time. It was quiet. I ordered my usual coffee, paid, found a table and realized I forgot to ask for a glass of water. A young barista whom I recognized but whose name I did not know brought me my coffee. I thanked her. Before I could ask for a glass of water, she said:

“Oh, you probably want a glass of water.”

“That would be great,” I said, surprised that she had known. “Thank you.”

“I just figured. Haven’t seen you around as much.”

She was right: I hadn’t been around as much. Too many tests, papers, races — too many things. I explained to her that I had been busier than usual, but that I was grateful to be here now.

“I love coming to Dirt Cowboy,” I added. “It’s my favorite cafe in the world.”

“That’s nice,” she said, and smiled.

I had no idea if Dirt Cowboy was her favorite cafe in the world. It probably wasn’t. But, in the moment, she seemed genuinely happy for me.

Something about this interaction struck me. The longer I thought about it, the more I leaned toward believing that there was something elusive and satisfying about how, in this seemingly minor interaction, my joy had been affirmed, reflected back on me. There is a Sanskrit word for this concept: “mudita,” meaning joy at another’s joy, or the opposite of jealousy. It’s a concept I’ve always quite liked — and one that, in the moment, I realized could have implications far beyond just satisfying my linguistic curiosity. This was a huge relief.

Let me explain: This realization brought me back to a question I had been turning over in my mind for a while. It was a question I had been asked at, of all places, a birthday dinner. It went like this: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The questioner was quoting the poet Mary Oliver, and, in doing so, had threatened to send our assembly of 20-somethings down the existential rabbit hole. Fortunately, that didn’t end up happening, at least not fully. We went around the table and provided fairly succinct answers. Mine involved trying to live one day at a time, focusing on what I could control, trying to make a positive impact and having consistent check-ins to assess how I was doing with all that. I thought this was a satisfactory answer. But then the next person went, and she questioned what it meant to make a positive impact. How do we know if we’re helping? How do we choose who to help? This question stemmed from a previous one that went something like this: There are roughly 7.7 billion people in the world. Each is living out his one precious life, at the center of his own universe, dealing with his own set of problems, growing, changing, feeling — where, then, should we set the boundaries of our empathy? If we, as humans, don’t have the emotional bandwidth to fully comprehend everyone, or to care about every problem, then where do we draw the line? When considering this question, it is important to remember that at some point, observing images of injustice without taking meaningful action becomes more an act of voyeurism than an act of bearing witness.

So, now you know. This is what I was thinking about when I went to Dirt Cowboy to write about tax reform. These two questions — Where should I draw the line? What should I do with my life? — felt inexplicably bound, correlated with each other, but individually difficult to solve. I was looking for clues — taking walks, polling my friends — but had no good leads, at least not until my interaction with the barista, until that moment of mudita.

It was quantifiable: To practice empathy by sharing in the joy of others. It was good: To increase net positive affect in the world. It was a part of how I would like to spend my life. But it wasn’t the whole story.

Mudita alone wasn’t enough to satisfy me. I needed something more, a drive, a purpose. I needed an “ikigai,” a Japanese concept meaning a reason for being, that which gets you out of bed in the morning. Did I have an ikigai? Maybe … I had a few passions, but I wasn’t sure I had an ikigai. This struck me as strange. Passion and drive had been nurtured in me from a young age. That upbringing was one of the reasons why I was at Dartmouth, why I was writing this article.

I concluded that the environment where I grew up suffered from a distorted form of ikigai, as well as a disregard for mudita. The America of big business and income inequality, of tribal politics and social media echo chambers cared very little for enhancing the joy of others, while simultaneously caring very much for self-appeasement, often by way of the pursuit of money. This pursuit of money is technically a form of ikigai, but it isn’t a very good one: If you spur positive change as a byproduct of getting rich, then you got lucky. Money is a concept and the pursuit of it is neither fundamentally good nor bad. It just is.

I thought about American consumerism, about our strange preoccupation with superlatives — being the best, biggest, strongest, richest — and came to the conclusion that this, too, was something I had chaffed against for a long time. Almost anything, however virtuous, taken to an extreme is usually a bad thing — or, as my father liked to remind me: Even water is toxic in high enough concentrations. I decided that my two-part answer to how I wanted to spend my life needed a third component: “Lagom,” the Swedish word for just the right amount. I — as well as society at large — would benefit from taking pride in the perfection of modesty: Striking a balance is often far harder than simply resorting to an extreme.

As I explored the question of how I wanted to spend my life, so many other questions appeared in front of me: How might my answer change over time? How might my current answer differ from those of other people? I had no clear answers for questions like these, and that was okay. The act of asking them was inherently valuable. If anything, that was my biggest take-away from this whole experience: the value of reflecting, of finding quiet space, of examining my life. I had articulated an “answer” in the form of “mudita,” “ikigai” and “lagom” because it allowed me to feel as though I’d thought all the way through the problem. But it was certainly no “right” answer. It was and is bound to change with time. So ­— let it be that way. That’s life. Thankfully, the capacity to question means the capacity for continued growth and discovery. That is a wonderful thing. But it takes a conscious decision to take the time to reflect. It is a blessing dependent on recognizing that all too often the chaos of daily life keeps us from examining our own lives, from knowing when to deviate from the regular flood of life and return instead to Dirt Cowboy, so to speak.