At an online event on 29th March 2021, The Sacred podcast, hosted by Elizabeth Oldfield, screened Emily Downe’s multi–award-nominated 3–minute film ‘My Dream, My Taste.’ This was followed by a conversation with leading voices from the fields of theology, philosophy and the creative arts, Professor Miroslav Volf, whose episode of The Sacred podcast inspired the film, philosopher Julian Baggini and former Head of Content at The School of Life Sarah Stein Lubrano.
This topic is one near and dear to me as I wrote a chapter on religious language at the time of human death, for my recently published book on religious language. For this chapter, I examined a collection of texts from a global corpus of web-based English and recent obituaries from the UK on Legacy.com, focusing on the phrase a ‘life well lived’.
What is a good life? What is a life-well lived?
In the Sacred event, Professor Volf talked about the “overriding imperative of modernity, “the emphasis on the preconditions of a good life, the compulsion to “secure the resources you might need for living your dream whatever that dream might be”. He says,
Whatever you choose as your vision of the good life you will be better off if you have accumulated economic, social, cultural, symbolic, bodily, capital. In other words, if you are rich, well-educated, well connected and good looking from kindergarten to hospice.
Volf goes on to discuss the meaning of the good life for the Christian, that
When we live by bread alone, someone always goes hungry. When we live by bread alone, every bite we take leaves a bitter aftertaste … It is a basic christian conviction that our world, even our flawed world, is a good gift from the God of love. When we receive that world and all the good in it as a gift, then we rejoice. And that is a sign that we are beginning to live a good life.
Other speakers explored other angles on the good life. Philosopher Julian Baggini talked about the problems with instrumentalizing our own lives, the discontent that results from thinking that our lives exist for something rather than having inherent value. According to Baggini,
The good life is a life in which one flourishes. And flourishing involves happiness and pleasure, involves the good things in life. But it also means living authentically as a human being, living to your full potential as a human being.
And former Head of Content at The School of Life Sarah Stein Lubrano rounded up the event with her reflections on her time leading workshops for people to come together and discuss the meaning of life, noting that what has stuck with her is “what even the people who have all the ingredients of a happy life don’t have in terms of meaning.”
I found the event refreshing and thought-provoking. It also prompted reflection on how my research examining the phrase “the life well-lived” supports and expands on the points made by these three speakers.
Examining a global corpus and online obituaries, I discovered some unsettling truths about this phrase. In the texts I examined, I found that, consistent with Elizabeth Oldfield’s introductory comments about the “the good life,” the phrase ‘life well lived’ encodes fundamental beliefs and binds a community together.
Among my findings were the following:
- A life well lived is primarily a human life, more specifically a male life.
- It is a full life, a life of accomplishments, service and elite qualities such as intelligence, happiness and dynamism.
- A life well lived is often that of a celebrity or other notable person who is ‘inspirational’.
- It is a long life, free from illness, that promises rewards both to the one facing death and to those they leave behind.
For sure, the phrases “the good life,” “the life well-lived” and similar language are all deeply religious in meaning insofar as they points to deeply held assumptions about what it is to be human and the nature of value. People unite around assumptions like these and even on occasion defend them. They provide comfort at moments of suffering, crisis and life transition.
Most importantly, however, the ways that language like ‘life well lived’ behaves, point to the valuing of certain lives over others and the pressures of possessing such a life often without acknowledgement of the privileges required. This speaks to the importance of querying such language and challenging it when necessary, of prompting further events like ‘My Dream, My Taste’ where people of different backgrounds and beliefs come together to consider the ethical implications of our language and the urgency of working towards the common good.
For more on language at the time of human death, see Chapter 8 of my book.