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What Is a Life Well-Lived?

Twenty quotations and reflections on living well.

 Ken Teegardin/Flickr
Source: Ken Teegardin/Flickr

Once in a while, I like to take a step back from my daily concerns and ask myself what it means to live a good life. What would I be thinking about each day? What would I be saying and doing? The people quoted here sometimes have different views on these matters. That’s why I’ve included many different perspectives.

"God gave us the gift of life; it is up to us to give ourselves the gift of living well." ―Voltaire

Whether we’re religious or not, all of us have the gift of life. The question is how to best use that gift. Hopefully, the quotations and reflections that follow will help to answer that question. Let’s get going.

"In a gentle way, you can shake the world." —Gandhi

In other words, that getting going need not be earth-shattering. Here’s a similar quotation from the author Joyce Sequichie Hilfer:

"Life is made up of a few moments all strung together like pearls. Each moment is a pearl, and it is up to us to pick the ones with the highest luster. If we do not have time to do great things, take a few gentle moments and do small things in a great way." —Author Joyce Hilfer

And if we miss the opportunity to pick a lustrous pearl, no need to fret; in the next moment, more pearls will appear for us to pick up and gently shake the world.

"If all you can do is crawl, start crawling." —Rumi

To me, this refers not only to our bodies, but to our minds. Some mornings, it’s a challenge to take on the day ahead. And so, I’d add to this quotation: “… start crawling with compassion for ourselves over how hard it can be even to crawl sometimes.” Our knees may get scraped, literally or metaphorically, but at least we’ll be moving—physically or mentally—and once we’re moving, the odds are the day will get better.

"Do not say, 'It is morning,' and dismiss it with a name of yesterday. See it for the first time as a newborn child that has no name." —Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore

This is a poetic way of saying, “This is the first day of the rest of your life.” That expression may have become a cliché, but it’s one that works for me. I like knowing that I can start over each day—even if I’m only able to crawl.

"What if today you gave yourself permission to be outrageously kind? What if you extended as much good will and kindness as you can possibly muster to every person you meet? And what if you did it with no thought of reward? I'm sure of one thing: it will be a day you will never regret." —Author Steve Goodier

I hope you’ll resolve to try this one day. Not only will it be a day you’ll never regret; it will be a day you’ll never forget.

"We must embrace pain and use it as fuel for our journey." —Kenji Miyazawa

This quotation sits at the front of a chapter titled “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” in my book, How to Wake Up. Why can’t we get no satisfaction? In my experience, it’s because we refuse to accept that pain and sorrow are inevitable experiences, including in a life well-lived.

To be honest, I’m not always able to embrace pain and sorrow. But when I can at least gently acknowledge how hard they can be to bear, it softens their oppressive feel and this opens the door to finding a measure of peace even in the midst of their presence.

"Life is not about how fast you run or how high you climb, but about how well you bounce." —Anonymous

I don’t usually use anonymous quotations, but I liked this one too much to pass up. I see it as a metaphor for equanimity—the ability to bounce as we encounter life’s ups and downs. I imagine myself on a trampoline, bouncing up and down with abandon, instead of running into one brick wall after another, which is what happens when I try to get everything to go my way.

I like the idea of living well through bouncing: bouncing through disappointment; bouncing through worry; bouncing through frustration; bouncing until we’re ready to get on with our day as it is.

"Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." —Simone Weil

This quotation sits at the beginning of one of the chapters in my new book How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness. My guess is that generosity would be on everyone’s list of ingredients for a life well-lived.

We usually think of generosity as giving something tangible to others or doing something for them to ease their burden. That’s why I love Simone Weil’s take on it. It’s quite simple: Do we give others our undivided attention? I, for one, could do better on this score.

"You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough." —Mae West

I’m aware that Ms. West doesn’t give us a formula for a life well-lived; I couldn’t resist letting her have her say anyway.

"Let no one deceive another or despise any anyone anywhere. May no one through anger or ill-will wish for another to suffer." —The Buddha

This is from the Buddha’s Metta Sutta, a teaching on treating all beings with kindness and care. It’s a tall order not to deceive another and not to despise anyone anywhere, but it’s something to aspire to. Try reflecting on what the world would be like if everyone lived in accord with the Buddha’s words.

"Some of us need to discover that we will not begin to live more fully until we have the courage to do and see and taste and experience much less than usual." —Catholic mystic Thomas Merton

This is one of my favorite quotations because it takes an unexpected turn. I’m waiting for Merton to tell me I have to do and see and taste and experience everything! But he says the opposite. His words serve as a reminder that what matters is not how much we see and do in life but the quality of our attention to whatever we’re doing at the moment.

"What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?" —Novelist George Eliot

There are plenty of days when we can make life less difficult for each other, and when that opportunity arises, we ought to seize it. Some days, though, the best we can do is simply not make things worse for each other and that’s important too—knowing when not to speak and when not to act.

"Breath. Pay attention. Be kind. Stop grabbing." —Anne Lamott

This description of how to live each day is vintage Anne Lamott: few words, but right on point. It’s why she’s one of my favorite writers.

"If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another." —The Dalai Lama

Another way to look at the Dalai Lama’s words is to think about how, as long as we’re contending with another person, we cannot be at peace ourselves. I’ve been practicing non-contention lately, an odd expression, but one I got from the Buddha. It simply means refraining from getting into conflicts with others. I’ve discovered that it’s not always easy, and sometimes conflict is necessary in order for us to protect our own well-being. That said, imagine the peace we’d feel if, whenever possible, we absolutely refused to contend with another.

If, as the Dalai Lama suggests, a life well-lived is one in which we provide peace for others, perhaps the first step in that direction is non-contention.

"From the first day of our life until our last breath, the very foundation of our existence is affection and human warmth." —The Dalai Lama

I love this quotation because, as I read it, it feels as if The Dalai Lama is building up to something earth-shattering and transcendent: “From the first day of our life until our last breath, the very foundation of our existence is …” And what follows that phrase? Simply a way to live each day that every one of us can commit to: with affection and human warmth.

"The whole life of man is but a point in time; let us enjoy it." —Plutarch

My life; your life: but a point in time. Looking at life from this perspective inspires me to try and enjoy it as much as I can.

"Make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens." —Epictetus

A quotation that so beautifully expresses how to live each day, that it also appears in my new book. Epictetus was born a slave. Despite seemingly insurmountable hardships, he lived a life of purpose, dedicated to helping others.

"And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good." —John Steinbeck

We don’t have to be perfect? Whew. What a relief! But we still have our work cut out for us … being “good” in the many ways the people quoted here have suggested.

And finally …

"Root out the violence in your life, and learn to live compassionately and mindfully. Seek peace. When you have peace within, real peace with others is possible." —Thich Nhat Hanh

© 2015 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work.

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