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23 August, 2019 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 23 August, 2019 12:26:37 AM

How to live better

Living better has its primary focus on living, in other words, on life that we spend together. We need to live first, and then make the living better or meaningful for everyone
How to live better

While our daughter Mayisha has been growing through adolescence to adulthood, I have always wondered about writing something that helps her understanding the world around. I kept jotting down my thoughts regularly, with a hope that someday all these words would look fairly ‘complete and adequate’, and they could be mailed to her. That eventually did not materialize, but nevertheless, the effort prevailed as a volume.

In that little effort what I never wanted, is to ‘sermonize’.  Chiefly because I didn’t (and don’t) qualify to. And then, time is also at scarce for this generation for reading long sermons. They have plentiful of things to do every day, and they are comfortable with the ‘substances and synopses’ of the matters around. It is also phenomenal what Nehru told in his letters to Indira: delivering sermons would not bring truth about ‘what is right and what is not right’; truths, whatever little it may be, could only be revealed by discussions.

As I see my daughter’s generation growing up in this very challenging era, sometimes they seem to be suffering from ‘generation gap’ related complexities. This generation was born in an age of super-connectivity, a time when people are holding huge library in their palms, the treasury chest in their pockets; the markets, shopping malls, schools, sports, newspaper, and movie houses are moving with them( Somewhere I read that today’s kids turn screenagers right after their first month on earth!). Whereas their parents were born and brought up with black and white TVs, may be with the sole land phone available in each para/moholla. Also they had to walk miles to post a letter and wait seven days for the reply to arrive!  Unlike their parents, most of this generation don’t read enormous books like Shaheb Bibi Golaam or Anna Karenina, care fairly less about newspaper editorials, and often talk to others having their eyes glued to smart phones. Today we have somewhat analogue parenthood with digital children.

 ‘Digitalization’, akin to its companions ‘globalization’ and ‘urbanization’, has already changed the world. The rapid and inevitable proliferation of information and communications technology touches and shapes almost every sphere of modern life. The added newborns are immersed in a steady stream of digital communication and connection. As they grow, the capacity of digitalization grows with them. While this may be a blessing on one hand, there are ominous signs of damage on the other. I would call it ‘imprisonment’ effect, where the children are getting confined and absorbed in their digital world, forgetting the natural ways of socializing, empathizing, loving, caring, feeling and enjoying the abundance of life.

So in my never-posted letter, I tried tell one simple truth: no matter how digitized, we cannot deny/overrule being human being;  the only specie on earth that combines brain, soul and spirit to live together, build societies and go forward. We cannot outsmart Mother Nature that is so exceptionally caring and protective in the universe. We must therefore live quality lives, share our bests, sacrifice for kinsmen, plant trees for the kids and leave marks behind. Today’s generation needs to understand this ‘natural expectation’ out of them. And they must act ‘naturally’, just being themselves. That’s the right way, as Oscar Wilde said this better, ““Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”.

That notion set the tone and tune of my letter.

My Dear Mayisha,

You could take this as a ‘compendium’ of my long-acquired personal insights that I always cherished to tell you. I want to start this with an imaginary case. An example of someone to have expected to live for, say 80 years. That seems quite a lot of time, right?  (Well, Rabindranath Tagore lived that long and wrote piles of literatures good enough for few lifetimes’ reading).  If we convert the time into days, it comes around 29200 days, which now perhaps seems not that much.  It would be 7, 00,800 in hours and 4, 20, 48,000 in seconds. If that man or woman is 18 years old now, he/she has 22630 days or 543120 hours or 32587200 seconds to live. That’s his/her ‘capital’ time, and that’s all he/she’s got. If that fellow sets a timer at this moment, he/she has already spent two precious seconds from that ‘capital’ by the time he/she finished reading this line.

Without a doubt, these seconds are very precious. And, they need to be utilized wisely. Question is, how do we make good use of them?

One answer could be available in the Bet.

Short-story genius Anton Chekhov wrote the Bet (a masterpiece) in 1889. It is about a bet between banker and a young lawyer on whether the death penalty is better or worse than life in prison. In the beginning, we're introduced to a banker who made a bet at a party he hosted 15 years before. The banker argued that death was a better alternative to life spent behind bars. The lawyer took the opposite stance, that life in prison would be better than a death sentence. The debate raged on and at being challenged, the banker waged a bet: the lawyer would be voluntarily jailed and, if he endured 15 years behind bars, he would be awarded two million rubles. Thus the lawyer was 'jailed' in the banker's garden lodge and allowed no contact with the outside world including visitors or receipt of newspapers or letters. He could write letters, read books, listen to music, smoke and have wine. During the first year, the lawyer did a lot of light reading and piano playing to help stem his loneliness and depression. During the second year, the lawyer stopped showing interest in the piano and took to reading literary classics. By the fifth year, the lawyer spent much time  talking to him and writing. The next four years were filled with study: language, philosophy, history, and theology. In the final two years, the imprisoned lawyer read immensely on chemistry, medicine and philosophy, and sometimes works of Byron or Shakespeare. In the meantime, the banker's fortune declined and he realized that paying off the bet would leave him bankrupt. The day before the fifteen-year period concluded, the banker resolved to kill the lawyer so as to not owe him the money. On his way to do so, however, the banker found a note written by the lawyer. The note declared that in his time in confinement the lawyer had learned to despise material goods as fleeting things, and the belief that divine salvation is worth more than money. To this end, he elected to give up the reward of the bet, stating: 'I despise freedom and life and health, and all that in your books is called the good things of the world.' In the document, he also said his plan to leave his voluntary prison five minutes before the fifteen-year period to surrender his part of the bet.

The story underscores a vital message: the awareness about the false vanity of materialistic life comes only after we acquire higher wisdom.

On being asked (in a BBC documentary that I watched sometimes in this year) about  why the poor people in Indian sub-continent seems happier than the western wealthier people, Dalai Lama answered,  perhaps the western education creates endless desire to have more and more things. The people in Indian sub-continent have learned to live and be contended with little ownerships. It can be rightly stated that the higher order of ‘self actualization’ is happiness not wealth; peace, not prosperity.

And this is exactly what Diogenes told to Alexander. In 336 BCE Alexander visited Corinth  while Philosopher Diogenes was living an ‘antisocial’ and austere life inside a barrel.  Alexander knew Diogenes , and wanted to meet the ‘rogue’ philosopher. Diogenes was enjoying the autumn sun when Alexander approached.  Alexander greeted him and said:

"Diogenes, I have heard a great deal about you. Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Yes," said Diogenes, "you can step aside a little so as not to keep the sunshine from me. "

The king was very much surprised. But this answer did not make him angry. He turned to his officers with the following words: "Say what you like, but if I were not Alexander, I should like to be Diogenes."

Perhaps both Alexander and Diogenes knew about the vagueness of earthy materials. The both knew that the ‘sunshine’ was something of value which the king could not provide.

At this point you may ask, then should we give up our desire to earn more and ‘live better’?  In response, I would argue, for sure we need to earn a living. But important is to determine How Much we must crave for ‘living’, or more specifically, ‘living better’. And you may then rightly ask, how do we define ‘living better’?

 ‘Living better’ could mean something complicated if we follow what great philosopher Socrates had said to his followers. When he was offered hemlock (poison obtained from plant named hemlock) to submit to voluntary death, (for both ‘corrupting’ the minds of the youth of Athens’ and ‘impiety’ of “not believing in the gods of the state"), Socrates comforted his weeping disciples by saying, ‘The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our separate ways, I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only God knows.’ However, Rabindranath Tagore was not as in dilemma as Socrates. He was clear and unambiguous in claiming the pre-eminence of life as stated in the poem Chaturanga, ‘Marite chahina ami, sundar bhubane, /manaber majhe ami banchibare chai...’ (I do not want to die in this beautiful world/But live in the hearts of men.)”  But here we would carefully avoid this side-line debate; for the commoners an innate human tendency of preferring certainty against uncertainty determines that we favour life over death.  

Coming to the point, I would define ‘living better’ in a way that would have a different connotation to ‘better living’. Living better has its primary focus on living, in other words on life that we spend together. We need to live first, and then make the living better or meaningful for everyone – for all who are parts of our societies and beyond. So ‘Living better’ is about living and beyond. ‘Better living’ ends where ‘living better’ starts.  

What I imply is, to take a ‘natural pragmatic approach’ to ensure ‘living hood’ and ‘survival’ first. The basic essentials of living have to be acquired by a combination of knowledge and efforts. What are the basic essentials, and how are they defined? Well, without dwelling much on it, I would say those are the first four storeys of the Abraham Maslow’s pyramid; making certain that the physiological, safety, belonging and esteem needs are fulfilled.

And there comes the need for developing/acquiring/having a philosophy of life. A philosophy strengthened by the belief that everyone has a purpose to live. A purpose that is intended by the Grand Designer, well-fitted into the jigsaw puzzle of ‘necessity’ we may not understand. A purpose that is needed for ‘the mankind’, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s words, “finding something to live for.”  

A personal philosophy of life is essential to give wholeness to one’s living. Aristotle argued that philosophy gets humans closer to God. Philosophy helps in filling up vacuum or emptiness existing in the ever-existed search of ‘finding something to live for’. Many would seek for the answers in ‘religion’ and ‘earthy gains’. That is perfect. But here I’m meaning something different - neither the overarching philosophical standings of religion that answers all existential questions of human being, nor the all-materialistic meaning of life that defines the purpose by power, position, and wealth. I would recommend you having a simple ‘commoner’s philosophy’ of life - something for simple living and high thinking, something that would allow you to have fearless moral courage; something that would guide you to embrace self respect over dishonour; something that would tell you when never to compromise on your beliefs and standpoints.

When you have a personal philosophy to guide and regulate, you are on the way of being yourself.  You would be existing, in Tagore’s words, “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls; where words come out from the depth of truth; where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;

The writer is a serving military professional.

The writer can be reached at  




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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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