What does it mean to live a life well-lived? For me, I want my epitaph to read, “He done did good.” It’s how we would say it in Texas.
I think we are here on planet Earth in this physical realm to do as much good as we can in the time we have. Doing good means being good to each other at home, at work and in the community.
You don’t have to endow a new hospital or museum. It is not about wealth. You don’t have to discover a new law of physics or write a best-seller. It is not about intelligence or wit. You don’t have to live to be 100 years old. It is not about age or experience, counting the days you are happy, or enumerating the hardships and trials you’ve faced. You just need to do good in the ways that you can.
My mother had a tiny well-thumbed book in her bedside table as she contemplated her mortality prompted by metastatic lung cancer. In The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor observed, “You exist but as a part inherent in a greater whole. Do not live as though you had a thousand years before you. The common due impends; while you live, and while you may, be good….”
Seneca, a Roman Stoic philosopher like Marcus Aurelius, said a generation before, “The happy life is not to be found in pleasures or possessions. It is a life spent in pursuit of virtue, of learning what is the right thing to do and then doing it — no matter how many people do otherwise. We may live to old age or die young; we may be healthy or sick, rich or poor: These are matters of fortune beyond our control. We control only our own thoughts and actions, how we conduct ourselves and how we treat others.”
American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “The purpose of life is…to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to make some difference….”
To be good, to be virtuous, to be honorable and to be compassionate are guideposts to doing good. Winston Churchill advised, “All the great things are simple and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope….” One might add love, humility and gratitude. The purpose of these virtues is not for our own sake, but to benefit others.
Albert Einstein postulated, “From the standpoint of daily life…there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of other[s] — above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy….” Mahatma Ghandi said, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever….” Learning and reflection help us understand the goodness we seek.
Mary Oliver reflected on what it means to live in these words:
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder / if I have made of my life something particular, or real. / I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened /or full of argument. / I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
There is a sense of urgency in living and doing good because we never know how many hours or days or years we have. The common due impends. The urgency is not about racing to exhaustion, doing more than or being better than. Urgency is about being present, watching blue herons take flight, delighting in a child’s discovery of words, breaking bread, savoring tasks, doing good.
Emerson again: “To laugh often; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to the leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” I assure you, you have made others happy by your presence in one, ten or thousands of ways. You’ve done good and will do good again.