“I just decided I wanted to only do things that make me happy. And the last two months have been amazing,” he said. We were having coffee at Stella’s when a friend revealed he had recently adopted a new life philosophy.
Then he asked, “What is your life motto?” I was a bit dumbfounded. I’ve written thesis statements for countless papers and articulated missions for organizations. At times, I’ve even outlined core values for a project. But I’d never done the same for myself — or at least not in a concrete, formal way.
The proposition fascinated me. Every day, we get out of bed and take on the day’s joys and challenges. Our approach, our actions, our decisions are obviously motivated by something. To take that something and put it into words and then try to shape your everyday interactions is intriguing.
In the eleventh hour, as I sat to write this, I sent a quick email to some close friends. I know, it seems rather sacrilege to ask something so personal via the interweb, but time was of the essence. To my surprise, the responses were plentiful and delightful — for the most part.
Some borrowed from other cultures or practices. A friend from home shared “Que será, será’” — a Spanish saying she encountered while studying in Madrid last fall. Another took a practice from yogis, “Meditate — but really live — with your palms faced open to the universe as to be open to receive all that is around you. Living with this readiness to receive is far more important to me than running around trying to find what it is you are ‘supposed’ to find.”
Some were about remembering the “big picture” in life. One friend shared, “Whenever I have a lot on my plate, and I fail to remember why it was that my eyes were bigger than my stomach, I muse on a line from one my favorite books by Jean-Paul Sartre called Nausea: “I wanted the moments of my life to follow and order themselves like those of a life remembered. You might as well try and catch time by the tail.” Another shared a quote from homeboy Thoreau, “All good things are wild and free,” which she uses as motivation for spontaneity.
In one response, a friend shared a sentiment I can identify with. One chapter of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (a fantastic book, I might add), mentions the tenet, “When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.” Similarly, she described, “I believe that I must live in the Now. Whether that moment consists of blissful happiness or incurable pain I believe I should be all in it. There is always something to gain from all types of experiences.”
Some responses were lighthearted. One friend’s personal mantra, “Surround yourself with people who are funnier and smarter than you.” Another buddy (and fellow columnist) shared: “My life philosophy is this: Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”
One friend had a more critical view, believing that life mottos are inherently flawed because everything depends on context. He said, “You should try to follow it but you can’t poo poo yourself if you don’t.”
He has a point. Declaring your mantra can lead to disappointing yourself and perhaps negating the purpose of a centralized philosophy, which, in an ideal world, would lead to a more fulfilling and centered life.
Another friend (another stinkin’ Sunnie) built on the initial critique, “Putting a lot of thought into a motto that works for you and sticking with it can help you accomplish deeper meaning from both succeeding at and failing at that motto, like one of my mottos, ‘respect everyone, every age, and have a conversation with them.’ You can’t know someone unless you talk to them, and even though you may not have the energy or presence of mind to genuinely respect everyone in the moment, I’ve found that I can learn valuable lessons from five-year olds and 95-year olds.”
I see the good and bad in declaring your life motto. Right now, there are tenets I hold that I practice in action, and others that I don’t — or at least not yet. I know how to value happy times. I think that’s best captured by a line from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Man Without a Country.” He writes,“I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” I believe in balance — sleeping, exercising, zero-tasking enough so that I can have a healthy life. That’s something I’m still working on. And that’s okay.
My freshman summer, I worked for a farmer. When I was describing how overwhelming I found the environmental issues of our generation, he said something I’ll always remember. “It’s about progress, not perfection.” Essentially, it’s about direction. We do what we can, we work toward our ideals.
So, is it a worthwhile feat to actually write out your “life motto?” Maybe. Perhaps, just as a business might use a “central value system” to evaluate if a certain decision is right or wrong, so can we. I’m not saying that people are companies. But in the complexity that makes up your late teens and early 20s, as we start to define who we are as adults, maybe this can help.
Katerina Athanasiou is a senior in the College of Art, Architecture, and planning. She may be reacched at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kat’s Cradle runs alternate Thursdays this semester.