“Am I living life to the full?”
“Am I living life to the full?”
Comedian & co-founder of The Sunday Assembly
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KP What does it mean to live your life to the full, and why is this the main question to be asking ourselves?
SJ In some ways the question – am I living life to the full, is really the question at the root of everything. You know, are you being as good as possible if life is about goodness? If life is about kindness, are you being as kind as possible? If it’s about expressing yourself, are you expressing yourself as much as possible? And so, in some ways it’s the most fundamental question, and in other ways it’s just deeply grounded in my own preoccupations, because Sunday Assembly is a movement which is all about helping people to live life as fully as possible. But it’s also personally important because I’m blissfully aware of the wonder of existence – of the privilege of existence – that it is remarkable that a bunch of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, some nitrogen, a few trace elements can do all the things that I can do and you can do: dance, love, get annoyed at themselves, forget their keys and realise their doing it. You get that for a tiny blip, then it’s over – it’s pretty important to try and work out what you do with that sort of heartbeat of existence.
The other part of it is, it’s f***ing difficult! The only person who has been more disappointed in me than my teachers, lecturers and general adults is myself. I am painfully aware that I could do better, that I would like to do better. So the question comes from trying to answer that ‘how can I be the best version of myself? But then realising that my particular hang-ups are actually universal ones, as in – I don’t think those concerns are unique to me. You know, the headline ‘Being Human: Not Always a Walk in The Park’ – is maybe a good subtitle for most holy books. So that question is really very fundamental to humanity.
KP This business of being our own worst disappointments, do you think your question is one that we’re ever likely to say ‘yes, I’ve lived fully’ – or will we just be a perpetual disappointment to ourselves?
SJ I suppose it’s about having the answers that allow you to accept the things you can’t change and the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to…you know – get all Serenity Prayer on it. It’s about asking yourself that question at different junctures in life – on spiritual, personal or educational pathways, you are never quite finished. Trying to make sure that you can hold that question usefully, without turning it into a crushing sense of disappointment.
KP What would you say are the ingredients to a life well lived?
SJ Good relationships seem to be strongly correlated to having a life that is full, and so not having them seems to be detrimental to life. There is a raft of literature from wisdom traditions and psychology that will tell you the things that help you make up a good life, and they are not necessarily the places you would go if you just got all of your information from advertisements and instagram. As you ask yourself the question, I think it would lead you to places which are ultimately more fulfilling. It’s about finding those things that are healthy, and which have the ability to absorb our infinite appetite for life. Roberto Unger says that ‘our desires are insatiable’ – it’s a key root of unhappiness in humans. That’s why the concept of God can be really great (if you believe he exists), because the more you love God the more there is to love. You can really lose yourself in it, you’ll find more and more in it and it can fill the insatiableness in all of us.
KP In the absence of a religious perspective, where do you find a guide to life and behaviour?
SJ I heard a great speaker, Bart Campolo, say that every religion needs to have a cosmos and an ethos. So in Christianity the cosmos is Jesus, and Jesus’s life and teachings offer believers an ethos. For me, I think ‘celebrating life’, or looking at the naturalistic worldview of being an evolved human being – out of the nothingness of matter, then going to nothingness afterwards, and for a moment existing – that cosmic view can inform an ethos of behaviour in everyday life. That feeling of how lucky it is, gives us that compulsion to go and ask yourself the question – if this life is a blessing, then how am I spending it? It’s a kick up the arse really. To really ask yourself that question from that perspective, is like realising you’re sitting on a cheque for a million dollars – you know, let’s go and make the most of it!
I also think it can help inform people to make more moral choices. If everybody has the ability to live life as fully as possible, then people not being able to take advantage of it is something which is very serious, and I should be trying to help those people. And also to look at where we have come from, and think about the goodness of the world that we could make. That’s the thing about celebrating life, it makes it sound like it’s all about instagram and base jumping off buildings, or getting drunk or whatever – deeply hedonistic things. But actually I think it can be deeply spiritual (for want of a better word), and it can inform moral choices as well.
KP It strikes me that there might be a perceived restlessness to the question. For you, is there a connection between living fully and becoming more peaceful and accepting of life?
SJ If life is an ongoing pursuit of what makes ‘fullness’, you know – I am making sure that I am going to go and do some volunteering and follow up the awesome project idea I have, while also being great dad AND going on date night. If I’m doing all that, and finding a spiritual path – then, I’m going to be living as fully as possible. But there is another type of fullness isn’t there? There is a fullness, a ripeness, an acceptingness – you know, the present moment becomes larger, understanding becomes larger…
KP Sounds like you’re describing a religious experience?
SJ But that’s available to everyone! That’s available from the contemplation of the naturalistic world, and that’s the thing that is really exciting to me. I always try to find inclusive language when speaking about it. If you imagine there is an Imam, a Priest and a Rabbi preaching, and a scientist giving a Ted talk, there would be parts of each one of the religious speakers who will say things that people will switch off from, because they don’t believe it. But then that TedX speaker will be able to talk about stuff that a huge number of different people from different backgrounds will be able to relate to, because they haven’t used a trigger word or trigger explanation which makes people logout. So the thing that is really exciting to me is trying to find a way to talk about life meaningfully and insightfully, and where you can approach these truths in a way that keeps everyone in the room – that’s the thing that really excites me.