What is a Life Well Lived?

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau

I’ve been thinking recently about what it means to lead a “life well lived.” Appropriate enough considering that’s what I’ve named my consulting practice. My own walk in the woods has introduced me to many of the technical answers, aided in part by an impressive body of literature and research devoted to positive psychology. (I have a fairly large resource library on my website, if interested.) I’ve read my share of pop psychology self-help books, and the writings of accomplished life mentors, and studied the more academically rigorous ideas of scholars like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his “flow theory,” even though I’ve yet to master pronouncing his name (the theory in a nutshell, a person’s reach should exceed his grasp, but not by too much.)

My walk was informed by insights from world religions and philosophies, both ancient and modern (I tend toward Taoism), and thought experiments like “brain in a vat,” and even found thought provoking ideas in the realm of science fiction. For instance to borrow from The Matrix trilogy, would you sacrifice everything you’ve experienced, everything you are, and every potential to become, and render yourself an impotent and inert equivalent of a human battery, in exchange for an illusory but flawlessly real experience of bliss on demand? A fictitious, artificially induced life as real as the back of your hand, featuring everything you’ve always wanted?

The well-considered answer to that question is almost always “no.” But why not? Why not have your brain surgically removed and sustained and nourished in a vat of secret sauce? Artificially stimulated with perfect efficiency, living a perfect life of your own design. Mother Theresa, Bill Gates, Mick Jagger, Julius Caesar without the Ides of March? Done, satisfaction on demand! You would never know the difference between your cherished lifestyle and your home in a vat on a shelf in the science lab. So why not?

Sometimes the questions that best define the well lived life have no final answer. Instead, you carry the questions with you, finding deeper and deeper answers as you grow in your capacity to inhabit your life. I give you Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen.

Dr. Remen is a best-selling author, physician, and professor of alternative medicine at the Osher Center of Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. She has spent 25 years of her career as a physician and therapist to cancer patients, young and old,many of whom were fast approaching the end of life. “Cancer in particular,” she tells us, “strips life down to its essentials…how few things matter and how much those things really DO matter.” In her decades of experience, “No one has ever said to me ‘When I die I’ll miss my Mercedes’” adding cogently, “And I practice in Marin County!”

Dr. Remen uses storytelling drawn from her practice to illustrate the point. In one instance she speaks of a man named George, who at the age of 45 patented a piece of medical equipment and spent the next 20 years as the CEO of a company manufacturing and distributing his creation worldwide. A successful business man, sophisticated investor, and world traveler, he acquiried wealth and beautiful works of art. By most standards, he led an enviable, perhaps well lived life.

Six months before Dr. Remen met George for the first time, he had been diagnosed with colon cancer, wide spread, and was understandably shaken by his terminal diagnosis. But perhaps not for the predictable reason. “I’ve wasted my life,” he told Remen. “I have three ex-wives and five children. I support them all but I don’t know any of them. I never took the time to know them, or to know anyone else either. I don’t think there is anyone who is going to miss me and I’m leaving nothing behind me but a great deal of money.” His eyes teared up as he spoke.

As it happened, another of the doctor’s patients (call her Stephanie) knew George’s device first hand; it had changed her life. Prior to its use, her chronic disease symptoms rendered her home bound. Managing her symptoms took up all of her time. She was unable to work, had no friends and was literally unable to live a life among other people. But soon after being treated she was able to get a job. She made friends, met and married the love of her life, and had a beautiful baby boy. “The day they gave me this device” she confided, “I was reborn.”

HIPAA notwithstanding (thank God), Dr. Remen shared that she knew the inventor, and asked if Stephanie would write him a letter explaining what he had done for her. Instead, Stephanie asked the doctor to invite George to the house for dinner so she could show him what he had made possible. George was surprised and touched that Stephanie wanted to meet him. He had never met anyone before who had actually used the device. So he gladly accepted.

The evening of the dinner date arrived, George expecting to meet a young couple and their child. Instead, he was greeted by dozens and dozens of well-wishers; Stephanie’s family, friends, neighbors, a whole community of people who had sustained her in her years as an invalid. The small home was grandly decorated with crepe paper and everyone brought food for the celebration. And each spoke with George to share their story, the story of Stephanie’s life. It took almost two hours, and George cried through most of it. And at the end of the evening Stephanie told him, “This is really a story about you George. We thought you needed to know.”

George shared this story with Dr. Remen one week afterward, shaking his head with gratitude and wonder. “George, how many of those devices did you say you make each year?” she asked. “Almost 10,000. I only knew the numbers Rachel, I had no idea what they meant.”

So what is a life well lived? Certainly not the Mercedes. The well lived life is at once more simple and profound, and accessible to us all. In the words of Dr. Remen, “What matters is who we’ve touched on our way through life, and who has touched us. And what we leave behind in the minds and hearts of other people.”