On living a full life

What does a “full life” mean? What are its parts? How does one do it?

I recently bemoaned how often I default to reading when I have free time, and how I rely too much on books to fill my moments. What I had in mind were all the OTHER things I love doing — piano being the main one. But also running. Going for a thoughtful walk. Yoga. Baking. Writing. Just being still and thinking. It wasn’t so much that reading was an impediment to anything productive (reading is amazing and growing and productive in and of itself!), it was that I wasn’t living life in the full way I feel I am geared to live it.

It got me thinking of what a full life looks like. What does it mean to live a “full”, in the sense of satisfying, life? We certainly “fill up” our lives no matter what. But filling up our time doesn’t equal satisfying our soul.

It makes sense to think about desire when we are talking about what qualifies as a full life, especially when using the model of hunger. When we are full after eating, we are satisfied. So perhaps a full life is best understood as a satisfying life.

Robert Brandom, in an article on Hegel’s account of self-consciousness, extracts a tripartite structure of the behavior of self-conscious beings:

  • An attitude that motivates us to certain actions, otherwise known as desire (e.g., hunger)
  • A response motivated by our attitude (e.g. per the above, eating)
  • A significance or a signifying, wherein we confer significance on the object we have targeted with our response as being the fulfillment (perhaps telos?) of the attitude. (e.g., the significance of designating something as food — this object has significance as food, as the satisfier of our desiring attitude)

The attitude I have in mind here relates to how we relate to our free space and time. When we are free, when we have no constraints of family or work, we all have a drive to do something. That “something” takes on many forms, from the very active and challenging (CLIMB ALL THE MOUNTAINS) to the more passive and restorative (is “Netflix and Chill” still a thing?). But really, I think what we find a drive to do, in the face of free time, is to express ourselves. To express our loves, our talents, our values, and to satisfy our needs and desires, the core of who we are, in the most “us”-driven way possible. To balance and authenticate our lives in a world which necessitates we devote most of our time, attention, and work to satisfying the needs and demands of others (work, family, etc.). To do whatever we want, however we want, in the way that we are personally best geared to do it (whatever “it” is) is part of what makes for a satisfying life.

Following the tri-partite structure, we respond to this attitude, to this drive to express ourselves, through a doing. An action. Our response is the doing itself. Whatever it is we actually do is an act of expressing of ourselves, of working to satisfy the drive to be “us” in the most authentic way possible. In that doing, we make the activity we’ve chosen significant, and significant about us.

In other words, what we do in our free time is the making of significance about ourselves.

In some ways, whatever we choose to do may not be the best way to satisfy a particular desire. If we are depressed and have a drive to feel better, scrolling on social media is a terrible use of time for our mental well-being. Nonetheless, by our actions of doing it for hours, we make it important. In doing the scrolling, we make it significant, an expression of some part of us. What we do in our free time is something significant about us, simply because we are doing it. While a particular act may not best satisfy a particular desire, it nonetheless is, by the very fact that we are choosing to do it in our free time, an expression of who we are. (Whether we like it or not.)

Of course, just because we’ve made something significant for us doesn’t mean we can’t change that pattern, or that there aren’t better, more fitting (more significant??) objects that can satisfy our desire and better express who we are.

So to live a full life, a life where our free time is filled with the things we love and that we want to be, or realize are, expressive of the person we are, we first have to figure out who we are. We need to figure out what we are “geared” to do, in all the capacities that can be expressed. We need to give thought to the person we want to be so we can figure out what we need to start doing. We have to acknowledge what is already meaningful to us (based on the choices we are already making) and compare that to what we’d like to make meaningful to and about us. This is similar to what Jenny Odell encourages when she addresses the necessity of directing our attention purposefully, individually, and meaningfully. We own and are the masters of our own attention. We should use that power meaningfully and wisely.

For me, “meaningful” in the context of using my free time wisely towards a full life means using my specific talents, abilities, and efforts to better the world and better myself. I want to use my skills (writing, strategizing, connecting with people, inspiring passion and excitement) in a job that is dedicated to improving the world. I also want to have relationships that better me and are mutually supportive. I want to challenge my mind and learn as much as I can. I want to move and challenge my body. And I want to spend time indulging in the beauties of this world in the ways I am best able to do, see, experience, and participate in beauty.

Doing all of that is hard, and looks different depending on my time of life. Right now, my job is incredibly meaningful, my marriage is solid, I have some wonderfully deep friendships, I am in a graduate program and reading a lot of intellectually challenging material (HEGEL YOU BASTARD), I am challenging my body by doing whatever it is my physical therapist says will help me heal my herniated disc, and I’m indulging in beauty by learning the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and taking up photography.

Day to day it will change, too, based on what I want or need at any particular free time. Some days my free time will be spent reading. Some days playing the piano. Some days relaxing watching a tv show. Some days going for a run. Hopefully it will be spent doing what my life may need to be more balanced and fulfilling as a whole.

That set of significance-making activities will look different in different times of my year or life because my life will be different and I will be different. The things I do to express who I am will, and should, change as I change. I just want to be aware of what I’m doing when I choose to spend my free time in a specific way, that in the choosing and the doing I’m conferring significance on something and expressing something of myself while doing so. I just hope I can keep being guided by the general norm I think I have discovered is an expression of my best, most authentic self: bettering myself and the world in the ways specific to who I am.

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