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When Living Was Easy Illustration by Louise Reimer.

When Living Was Easy

Be happy, be productive, be your best self: everybody has a version of the bathroom mirror mantra that defines the good life. Scaachi Koul and Naomi Skwarna on the tyranny of a life well lived.

SCAACHI KOUL: My parents came to Canada from India in the early eighties to have a “better life.” This is an oft-repeated line in immigrant narratives: that some other place can offer improved conditions that mean your children can have the good life.

Which is all to say that “the good life” is rather intangible but you can probably feel it when you’re living it.

Do you think you’re living the good life?

NAOMI SKWARNA: There’s a difference between the good life and the better life. No, I don’t think I’m living a good life but I do think I’m living a better life. The distinction to me relates to good life meaning a sort of transcendent, incomparable existence, to better, which lives in time and feels earthly, based on measuring the life you’re living against someone else’s. That could be your family, your friend or your neighbour.

Maybe what the good life means to me comes specifically from this very first-year-university idea I have of Eudaimonia, which means “to live well and flourish.” I think if I were to really pare it down—and this is not exclusive of your idea—a good life is almost never a comfortable or an easy one. So that’s interesting with regard to what you’re saying about the immigrant narrative: that aspirational drive towards something.

My question for you then is, do you feel you still carry those impulses, the stuff that motivated your family, in a discernible way? Do you feel like you’re trying to get somewhere?

SK: I watch my parents, specifically my father, continue to struggle with overall happiness and I’m starting to think that there is no good life. I don’t think it exists. Being happy in an existential way seems too complex, too disorganized a concept to actually achieve. But I think I spend a lot of time trying to live a good life, trying to improve, at both my benefit and detriment.

NS: I would push back slightly and say I think happiness and the good life are slightly different things. I don’t think one has to live a good life to feel happy. Happiness is sort of the liquid substance and the good life is something of a vehicle. Also, I know you don’t officially believe in “the good life” but it sounds like you sort of treat it as a horizon line, something to move towards if not arrive at.

For me, I think that has a lot to do with trying to understand things that seem to defy understanding. I have a sort of relentless acquisitiveness, which I have to remind myself sometimes runs counter to what I actually believe a good life looks like. That means doing things that aren’t precisely for me. I feel a lot of discomfort around my greed for things and experiences and yet we live in a world where it seems that if you don’t look out for yourself, you’re dead in the water.

I think a good life is one that is all about the present moment and not about the end result. I have this image of myself, age twelve, just perfectly content to spend hours swimming in the lake, staring at the sky. I didn’t measure out time in increments that could and should be spent in reasonable ways, but by intuition. I suppose that’s a particular privilege of childhood, but I think about how much I would love to bring some of that back into my adult existence. Be slightly less mercenary.

SK: You’re probably right, yes, that happiness and the good life are different things, but maybe that’s why I conflate them: I don’t really know how to be happy because I think I’m always going to be chasing something. The good life, to me, would allow you to take a step back, a breather, some time to relax because you’ve made it (therefore it would mean something only to the individual). That sounds like an impossible goal, but only because I’ve made it an impossible goal. And that is because I hate everything and am generally miserable and cannot have nice things.

NS: I suspect that we have very different practical ideas of what a good life looks and feels like and a year from now they’ll be different yet again. So, the good life, based on my bastardized concept of Eudaimonia, is about living well and flourishing. And being imperative. It isn’t just one or the other. Living well is the best revenge and I suppose the best kind of life I see for myself is one that is not measured or judged in the light of another. Living well and flourishing are both about maintaining and growing, I think, but I haven’t yet quite figured out how to flourish. In some ways, working hard, being productive, socializing strategically, employing the right trend, these are evidence of living well, evidence that can be easily observed by others. And there have certainly been moments where I feel I made the right series of choices to look like I’m living well and perhaps even flourishing from a few feet away. Social media is great for that. Wearing all black is great for that.

I sometimes think about this quote, about how the most important thing to do at a party is find the best light and stay in it all night. The good life for me sometimes seems like being free of that need to be seen in the best light, letting my identity mostly be defined through the collage of external perspectives. Because I feel freest, if not happiest, when I lose that sense of self-consciousness. Like that feeling of just being in the water I guess. That’s when I’m more receptive to other people’s feelings. That’s when I feel more integrated into the whole texture of the world around me, not just one person stuck in the surface of it like a thumbtack. But I struggle with it. I struggle with maintaining the boundaries of my own character. I want to ask you more about how time, or scheduling, fits into your idea of a good life. I have this game I like to play sometimes, and that is: tell me your perfect day. It can be speculative but somewhat realistic.

SK: My perfect day is a productive day. It’s a day that starts with good sleep and a nice breakfast and a place to go work and a small coffee and cold weather and no distractions. That’s a nice day to me.

NS: How do you think living a good life involves other people: friends, family, colleagues? On a broader scale, do you think about what it means to be a citizen and what that can mean to the individual?

SK: The good life can only involve other people. I don’t think you can truly live it alone. This isn’t to say you need a relationship or constant intimacy but can you live the good life without having people around you? Without friends? WOULD YOUR LIFE BE AS GOOD WITHOUT ME, NAOMI?

The idea of freedom as the good life is really interesting to me. I think that’s, maybe, the key to living the good life: feeling like you don’t have to do anything but knowing that you can. Or feeling the freedom to let life happen and worry less about process, productivity and possibilities.

NS: A kind of radical freedom is nice to have for a little while, even though I find I live my most productive life under some restrictions—I probably got more work done when I had a full-time job but I resented not having complete agency over my time, when I woke up, how long I could take a walk for. And now that I’m self-employed, there’s a formlessness that sometimes feels wonderful and forever summer, other times like there’s no shape to my existence. But that has to do with the fact that this is the first time since I was literally a baby that I don’t have to spend at least five-sevenths of the week in a place that takes attendance. So, freedom: who even knows. The world still makes demands. I still desire things I’d rather not, so freedom is relative, which is not a new insight. But at least I have more moments of choice within my day and I’m grateful for that. That feels like part of living well and flourishing—having an awareness of possibilities as they are presented so that I can pick between them. I don’t know. Maybe I have too much freedom. 

SK: I think about freedom in terms of the good life more in regards to freedom from the requirements you put on yourself. A day job, the things other people demand of you—those don’t impede the way my own neurosis does. Which is why I think the good life is unachievable. When will I ever be able to actually escape myself?

NS: I feel wary of my desire to be productive. It often feels consumptive or greedy and yet when I’m unproductive, I feel really bad about myself. So maybe it’s about being a fulfilling kind of productive. Intangible productivity. I’ve been watching a lot of Hannibal lately and amongst the many things that pass through my mind, I’m astonished by how productive everyone is. Actually, I’ve noticed that about a lot of contemporary shows. On Friends they used to sit around and drink coffee, Seinfeld too. Now the TV shows that get people going feature characters that take care of business at an incredible level of productivity. Olivia Pope, man. Does she have like ninety hours in her day? For God’s sake. Part of living a good life is finding ways to avoid feeling guilty and that has meant accepting that wasting time is inevitable. I just try to make it benign waste.

SK: I don’t think productivity is a good measure of anything. I too feel incredibly guilty when I’m not productive and that’s not a feeling I appreciate or one that I think I should engage with. But it’s how I was built, which I suppose leads me back to the immigrant narrative: my parents moved here and worked impossibly hard for financial security and emotional stability and citizenship. I was carried on the backs—sometimes literally—of people who understood that work had a value and if you worked hard, you would get things. The trouble with this, and I think a lot of first-gen kids have this issue with their parents, is you don’t know where to stop because you were never stopped. You never knew where the line was. My dad retired at sixty and one would think that’s when his good life could start: the house was paid off, the kids were all financially and physically independent, he and his wife were in good health and good finances. But after he retired, he was worse than ever because he lost the thing that made him fight. I think he was already living the good life and then he didn’t know what to do. Wouldn’t it be great if you knew things were perfect in the moment, instead of years after the fact when you’re feeling nostalgic and old?

NS: If you were to pick a significant impediment to your living the good life, what do you think that would be?

SK: It’s those two concepts: productivity and genes. This was modelled for me, for better or worse, and while it’s good that I work very hard and don’t really enjoy vacations, it’s bad that I already know I will never really feel settled. Because there’s always something else. I can always do something else. What about you? You are one of the most chilled out people I know.

NS: It’s a Jewish thing too, that the good life is not drawn from ease and comfort. It’s so creepy, my dad used to sometimes say “Arbeit macht frei,” which is German for “Work will set you free,” something that was wrought in metal at the entrance to Auschwitz. Obviously the subtext there is “to your death.” And yet it was re-appropriated as this ironic slogan to promote efficiency and hard work. I also come from an immigrant family, so maybe that’s part of our shared legacy. Chronic restlessness. Although I don’t know, I don’t want to glorify or pathologize that trait. I wonder if that’s something we can decide to do? To accept our restlessness as being part of, if not a conventional good life, our good lives. And acceptance is key to feeling free. Like you, my impediments feel like pressures I’ve imposed on myself: guilt, shame, the works. It’s hard for me to guess what my number one impediment is, other than being a person.