It seems to me that a lot of human motivations are based on fear, self-centredness or both. I wonder if the best motivation for how we choose to live is to seek to live beautifully.
Here is a quick look at some of the common options:
1. Earning someone’s approval – This has to be near the top of the list for many of us – maybe all of us at some time or other. The “someone” could be parents, community, teachers and mentors, or God. This creates all kinds of anxiety when it’s based on fear of rejection, but it can get beautiful when it’s about wanting to delight someone we love.
2. Competition – Another common motivation is the desire to beat others – to rise to the top of the heap. This is a blend of fear and self-centredness – fear that not winning is losing (‘the weak are meat the strong do eat’ as the grim voice says in Cloud Atlas) and self-centredness as the necessary result of that choice. Choosing a small team or tribe is just an expanded form of self-centredness, and it’s still all about fear. Yet sometimes healthy competition can be a mutual drive toward beauty and excellence.
3. Pleasure – Or is it all really about feeling good? Getting that food we crave or the next orgasm. Or moving on to the substitutes that are more and more diverse and available for less and less effort – alcohol, nicotine, adrenalin. The more we chase pleasure for ourselves, the less we get out of it. The more we focus on the natural pleasures, in their natural contexts, shared with others, the more we get out of them – approaching something of beauty.
4. Afterlife – Some of us choose what Marx called an opiate. We deny immediate motivations and focus our choices on an eternal future. At its worst, this disengages us from present reality and we slip toward a disembodied denial of our immediate reality and environment. It can get better when it’s delayed gratification taken to the utmost, allowing hard choices for the sake of something which might just be beautiful – possibly even now.
5. Peace – For others, motivation is oriented around what brings peace – what minimizes the chaos, stress and anxieties that are a natural part of life. Sometimes this denies the necessary tension and conflict and energy that make life full, but at other times it is a way of accepting the good and the bad, the simple and the difficult, pain and pleasure and coming to terms with it all in spite of rejecting the present moment. Peace, then, becomes something beautiful.
6. Beauty – So obviously I have manipulated this list to suggest that all of these potential motivations are at their best when they are less about individualism and fear, and more about the way of beauty. And to manipulate this even more, I will define beauty as having to do with shared engagement with and celebration of this amazing world we live in – of relating to it all in a harmonious, meaningful and resilient way. This is the motivation I want to guide my choices.