Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Better Place

The other day Jim said, "It would be really cool to be in a band that plays music that makes people happy." I'll never be in a band, but I agree that improving the lives of the people around you is a worthwhile pursuit.

Anyway, it got me thinking about music that makes me happy. When it comes to groups that are making that kind of music, I initially thought that the first obvious choice for me would be VNV Nation.

But I started thinking the whole thing over while I was out running. It occurred to me that I'm not sure their music makes me happy, per se. What it does is inspires a sense of hope that we can fight and work to make the world a better place.

Is Hope the same thing as Happiness? What is happiness, anyway?

That's quite a can of worms to be opening. I can't even begin to weigh in on the subject with an original contribution. Aristotle argued that happiness is the result of a life well-lived. As such, it isn't something that we can experience directly, but rather something that may describe a life once it is complete. It has been likened to an orchestral performance [1]: if the orchestra botches it in the final movement, the concert can hardly be called well-played. It is only a good performance once it has been completed well.

I think I mostly buy that. And if it's accurate, then the best we can do in life is work toward a happy end state. To me that means
  1. Taking care of the people I love.
  2. Experiencing all of the good things that I can.
  3. Learn something positive from negative experiences.
  4. Trying to inspire others to do these things also.
One of my core beliefs is that health, physical activity, and adventure lead to a more fulfilling existence. That's what Self-powered Life is all about.

Years ago, the slogan one would hear and read around wilderness areas was "Take only pictures, leave only footprints." But after a while, conservationists discovered that all of those footprints were wearing out our national parks and forests. So the current rallying cry is "Leave no trace." That's a pretty good policy, but we also have to undo some traces left by others. There's the odd bit of rubbish on the trail-side, dropped (I prefer to think) on accident, and it's just good citizenship to pick it up and pack it out.

I personally find litter terribly offensive. And yet in populated areas it's so common as to almost be invisible. But once you start noticing it, it can be maddening. And I've always assumed that there's some division of the municipal government that was responsible for picking it all up. But if that's the case, they're understaffed and overworked. At an intersection which I regularly pass while riding to work or running, I saw the same discarded YooHoo bottle sitting there for weeks. And the only time it moved was when it got blown off of a retaining wall and into the gutter.

So why not, I decided, bring some of the backcountry trail ethics to the urban environment? Along multi-use paths and in parks, one is seldom very far from a trash can; it is little inconvenience for a runner to snatch up a piece of trash and drop it in the nearest bin. So that is what I have resolved to do. Each time I go out running, I started cleaning up some litter along the way. I can't pick up all of it, but as they say across the pond, every little helps.

What if everyone did that? What if everyone identified some small measure that could be taken to incrementally improve our world, and then acted on it? Mahatma Gandhi said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world." I'd love to see what would happen if we all decided that we can and will make a difference to make the world a better place.

[1] Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer Adler


  1. I've been thinking a lot about that Gandhi quote recently. I must confess, it felt so *heavy*. It felt like the weight of the world. But I'm starting to see, thanks, in part, to this post, that I don't carry the world. I carry my part to make it piece of litter at a time.

    1. Thanks, Jane. You're right: big goals and big problems are intimidating. In the areas you are passionate about, you do an awesome job of being part of the conversation and spreading ideas. Don't underestimate the impact you're making.