What is a Life Well Lived?

Today is the first day I have felt the stirrings of a midlife crisis.
Today, December 16th 2011, I learned of the passing of Christopher Hitchens, journalist, polemicist, intellectual, part-time professor and prolific author. Hitchens was an avowed atheist, a one time socialist and a fairly harsh critic, so I am certain if we had ever met we would have had very little in common. However, he was such a brilliant writer, thinker and speaker that I could not help but be a fan of his work. I may have often disagreed with him, but I was pleased to have something intelligent to (albeit silently) argue against.
So why has the death of this world renown intellectual caused me to contemplate things existential? Because he achieved the pinnacle of success in the world I most wish to inhabit. He was a sought out lecturer and teacher and a prize winning essayist. He was on countless panel discussions, round tables and talk shows where he regularly displayed both an excessive lust for life and fierce intellect.
One of my favorite stories about him deals with the time he was set to join a panel discussion on technology and it’s influence on future policy. The other panelists prepared remarks and rehearsed ahead of time in order to try to win the audience over to their positions. Hitchens showed up ten minutes before showtime, 5 drinks deep, and scribbled some notes on a napkin.
He outperformed them all. He was just that smart. And yet…
As I am always wont to see the more pessimistic side of things, his passing caused me to wonder, how long will it take before his name is just another in a long list of names in some nonfiction anthology? I’ll be turning 40 this year, midlife, and I wonder if after another 40 years will someone who’s star shone so brightly when alive be just another footnote? This prompted me to do a little research. I looked up people who had died in 1972, 40 years ago. Just as I feared, I could only identify a fraction of the people, who at the time of their death had rated a very public obituary.
Something like this makes you think. If people who achieve the utmost success in a chosen field can be forgotten in just a generation, what of me? The western way of defining ourselves through our work is flawed in some fundamental way if a life lived in pursuit of professional excellence leads to faded obscurity. This leads me inexorably to the ultimate question: What is a well-lived life?
Then, as usual, my wife put things in perspective. She told me how just this very day she had been thinking along similar lines, minus the existential angst of course. She had been playing with our kids and thinking how she’d probably forget this day in the not-too-distant future, but that it didn’t matter. What mattered was the joy that she was experiencing at that moment. The reality of that moment in time gave meaning to her immediate existence.
So in the end, did all this melodrama I was putting myself through amount to the somewhat trite maxim that we should live in the present moment? Not quite.
The present moment is rarely present to us. We (or at least I) worry about the past, plan for the future, go over past insults and perceived grievances. We overfill our the plates of our lives to the point where we can’t taste the individual flavors. I think in order to truly enjoy that present moment with a real peace of mind requires an adjustment of values so that they are in line with virtue. We must treat each other justly, face challenges with fortitude and prudence and always live in moderation. There is a reason Aristotle and others point to a life lived in accordance with virtue to be the best sort of life. If we do this we are free to enjoy that brief moment to its fullest, and that is a life well lived.