A few weeks ago, I wrote about a growing trend of “early-life crises” that I’ve been witnessing in myself and my peers. I concluded that serious self-examination was the best way to figure out what really makes you happy now in order to avoid suffering later. My views on this were reinforced when I read Cameron Ainsworth-Vincze’s “Bay Street Lawyer Blues,” a great article warning law school hopefuls of the harsh reality of lawyering at a prestigious firm. Unfortunately, as much as I can preach the virtues of thinking ahead and of exploring your own beliefs, goals, and values, I have to admit that progress is slow. Questioning every belief, thought, or idea that passes through your head is not fun, and I’m beginning to question the wisdom of the approach in the first place.
Indeed, many people claim, as I am often tempted to, that you just “know” what’s good. At first glance, this appears to be nothing more than a convenient escape from explanation, a sophisticated I-don’t-know. Upon closer examination, however, I think that this inexplicable knowledge is unavoidable. Whatever definition of good you arrive at, whether you simply equate happiness with goodness, or define it as something less utilitarian, there comes a point in the reasoning process where you cannot reduce the argument any further. Indeed, after you’ve worked your way through your prejudices, socially motivated contentions, and other external forms of motivation and meaning, it seems inevitable that you arrive at some “bottom,” that requires no further explanation because none is possible. The sophisticated I-don’t-know becomes an unsophisticated I-know-but-can’t-explain-it, and perhaps this is the best one can hope for.
Where this “bottom” occurs, however, is still within our control, and I think that exercising this control is very important. For instance, I am currently presented with two contrasting options for tentative summer plans. I can either ride my bike across Canada, or intern with the Government of Ontario. While the bike trip appeals to me more on the surface, I also think that the internship would be more conducive to a career in politics, which I think I might value. Rather than accept my interest in politics as the bottom of my reasoning, however, I pursue a deeper meaning, seeking to understand the roots of that interest, to find a more solid bottom.
The deeper I dig, however, the murkier things get. Something seems to appeal to me about joining the “elite” of Canadian society, but why? The money is appealing, but even that is no bottom. Money for what? I don’t know. I don’t think power is something I’m inherently interested in, so I rule that out as the bottom. A year ago I would’ve said I want to help improve the world, but now I’m not even sure about that. Why would I want the burden of governing millions of uninterested, unengaged, apathetic, spoiled Canadians? That doesn’t sound fun. Perhaps it’s an issue of egoism: a desire to have my ideas and intelligence validated and recognized. If so, that’s an awful reason to go into politics and I should be stopped at all costs. But the truth is, I can’t find the bottom. Maybe I should listen to what I “just know,” although accepting inexplicable motivation does imply a frightening sacrifice of control. Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not you believe the unexamined life is worth living.