‘I came so they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of’
‘Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.’
At the moment I’m spending quite a bit of time working on the garden and growing fruit and veg. Occasionally I post pictures of garden produce on Facebook and I often get friends referring jokingly to the Rodwells living ‘the good life’.
These comments inspired my wife and I to look at some episodes of the 1970’s sit-com of the same name. In the series Tom and Barbara Good have given up the rat race to live self-sufficiently in their suburban house. The front and back garden have been dug up for fruit and veg. Chickens, pigs and goats have all been moved in.
It’s all very funny and has become something of a classic. But it’s a far cry from anything the Rodwells aspire to in London in 2016!
So what is the ‘good life’?
This question has been a major theme in philosophy and goes back to Aristotle who argued that the highest and happiest life was that of contemplation. Early Christians also felt that the good life was associated with the mind so they sought to reflect on God first in the desert and then in monasteries throughout the ancient world.
In modern times the good life has come to be synonymous with personal happiness and fulfilment. Our consumer society promotes the notion that fulfilment is found in unlimited wealth, leisure and luxury.
At the same time there are some who are arguing the opposite: it is in simplicity, frugality and purposeful living that we find the greatest happiness. So we have things like the ‘slow food’ movement, ‘minimalism’ arguing for getting rid of all our stuff and a ‘downshifting’ movement away from complicated lifestyles and towards finding more balance between work and leisure.
What it’s not
Looking back at my life and the lives of those around me there are some things that the good life definitely isn’t:
- More stuff. I grew up with hardly any stuff, I’ve lived with varying amounts and I currently have more than I need. Accumulating more things, even expensive cars, beautiful houses and top-spec tech, is not the good life!
- Activity fuelled. It could be excessive hours at work. It could be the demands of an event-filled family or personal schedule. Maybe we just can’t put the smart-phone or some other technology down. Or maybe what was once a hobby is taking over your life.When one part of our life starts to dominate to the detriment of all the rest we will not be living the good life.
- More leisure or holidays. I once spent 9 months travelling round the world. At the end I realised that there was much more to life than seeing the most amazing scenery, accumulating experiences and doing whatever I wanted for long periods of time. Without a higher purpose and a deep connection with the people and places I visited it became rather self-indulgent and dissatisfying. I was glad to get home!
- A rural Idyll. Having been brought up on a farm miles from anywhere I certainly have a soft spot for this notion of the good life. But as I’ve explained elsewhere, we will not be happy with a ‘perfect’ house and location unless we are deeply connected to all that makes us human; that is to God, people and place. For many people, including Christians, it’s also about calling and mission. What’s the ‘God-thing’ that we’re on the planet for? Can we pursue that faithfully where we’re dreaming of living?
Where can we find it?
Drawing on my own experience, my observations of those around me and some reflections on scripture, I’d like to suggest that the good life is about generosity, simplicity and living ‘deep’.
- Generous. One of the great insights about life, that seems to be forgotten by the I-generation, is that it’s not all about me. It’s not rocket science and all the major religious traditions agree; we need to build an other-centeredness into our everyday lives.
Recently I’ve started a habit of self-reflection at the end of the day. Instead of looking at what I’ve achieved in terms of my ‘to do’ list I’m using a quote from St John of the Cross;
‘In the twilight of life,
God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human success,
but rather on how much we have loved’.
So I look back over my day and see if I have succeeded in reaching beyond myself, whether it is being attentive, giving gifts, being merciful, serving, affirming or offering prayers.
If love is truly the greatest commandment, there can be no such thing as a ‘good life’ without it.
- Simple. This is the conviction that ‘less is more’. I love the way Pope Francis describes it:
‘Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack.
‘Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.’
- Deep. Superficiality is the curse of our age. We have become slaves to the instant, the easy and the comfortable.
There is often little deep connection with the real. Our reliance on technology forces us to live life at second hand and seldom make deep connections with real things, real people or real life.
But fingers on a keyboard or swiping a screen can never substitute for a hug, a kiss or even a handshake. A waterfall as a screen-saver is a million miles from standing mesmerised beside the glory of the real thing. Seeing a loved ones face, a walk in the rain, a bird singing, playing with a child, a live concert, kicking a football with mates, worship in a church, giving a hug to a hurting soul; none of these or a million other possibilities that real life throws up, can be neglected or virtualised if we want to live deeply and meaningfully.
Living deep might include:
- A capacity for wonder. The wonder that comes naturally to a child often needs to be relearned as an adult. We should be constantly expectant of meeting the numinous, the awe-some, the wonder-full around any corner, in any encounter. The spiritual disciplines of solitude, contemplation and celebration can help us discover this sense of awe, even in the mundane and ordinary.
- Appreciation of beauty. Beauty in music or art, in buildings or landscaping, in nature or in God himself. It’s all around us and can even be found within us if we look prayerfully. Taking time each day to be ‘baptised in beauty’ can become a divine encounter, if we approach reverently and expectedly.
- Time for play. Deep play would be: getting on your knees with kids; getting competitive with some mates; watching your favourite comedy on TV with a loved one. Tech based play is often isolating and easily becomes compulsive- it diminishes rather than deepens us.
- Creativity. Living more deeply will mean embracing our creativity. It is the difference between taking delivery of a ready made bookcase or building it with a friend over a weekend with a few planks of wood, some screws and a saw plus a touch of paint. Or an artist friends’ gift of a painting compared with a bargain Degas from EBay. Or taking a day out to transform a small patch of soil into a flowerbed instead of paying someone to pave it over.
- Praise. Everything we see or experience can become an opportunity to praise. In fact, the enjoyment of a play or concert, a walk or a sunset or simply time spent with a loved one is incomplete without being able to show appreciation. “We delight to praise what we enjoy” writes CS Lewis, “ because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”
The Road Less Travelled
There is something very attractive about a life well lived. We may find it hard to define but when we see it we find ourselves thinking- so that’s what it looks like!
The first step is to admit to ourselves that we’re not on course. The second is to start to put habits and disciplines into place that will get us to where we want to be. There will almost certainly be things we will need to stop too. We will need to make the journey with others. We will also need God’s grace in shovel loads.
But we owe it to ourselves, our world and our Maker to live life as generously, simply and deeply as we can. Who knows; maybe we’ll inspire others around us to discover the true meaning of the good life too!