How to live

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I borrowed the title to this entry from a book by Sarah Bakewell about the 16th Century French philosopher, Montaigne: “How to Live.” But getting the knack of living so you don’t alienate family members and other people and still have your self-respect requires that you pay attention to every lesson no matter where you find it.

Lots of folks start with a religious text, say, the Bible. I spent eight years as a theological student. I can attest that there are lots of lessons on how to live to be found in the Bible. I’m no longer a believer and haven’t been for many years. But I try not to have a closed mind.

Which brings me to a brief obituary I read the other day in USA Today about Betty Jo Simpson, age 80, of Jeffersonville, Indiana. Betty Jo died of lung cancer. But I don’t leap to the conclusion that she was a long-time smoker. My cousin Starley, a nurse, died of lung cancer and she definitely was not a smoker.

The important thing about Betty Jo wasn’t how she died. It was how she lived. Here she belonged to a generation you don’t associate with the internet, much less a personal website. Yet she had her very own. It attracted 682,000 Instagram followers.

When a reporter for USA Today asked her why she had so many followers, she thought it probably was her message. She advised people to “Love everybody and be good to everybody – that’s the main thing.”

That’s not far removed from the message of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But “judge not” tacks on a threat to the admonition: “Lest you be judged.”

I prefer another ancient rule for living. It comes from the philosopher Philo of Alexandria who died about A.D. 50. He advised his students and followers to be kind. The reason for this: “Everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

There are a couple of things I like about Philo’s admonition. First, being kind is something
everybody understands and can do. Unlike loving everybody, being kind doesn’t require some heroic effort. You don’t have to form a value judgment. You don’t have to offer your body as a human sacrifice or compromise your self-respect.

The second thing I like about Philo’s admonition is that invites us to be fair and objective. He’s telling us to see beyond the surface of the other person’s rude words or unseemly behavior. That person is fighting a great battle. So give him or her a break: Be kind.

I suppose lots of people would think this is what Jesus advised the rich young ruler in the Gospel of Luke. The young man wanted to hear the words of eternal life. He was told to love God and his neighbor as himself. But again, the biblical injunctions attach rewards or, in this case, an implied punishment: An inspired answer but with distracting caveats.

My hunch is that just being kind is what Betty Jo Simpson of Jeffersonville, Indiana, had in mind. She offers no threat, real or implied. She doesn’t promise happiness much less eternal life. She made no exceptions, “Love and be good to everybody.”

If you can remember just to be kind to everybody, you spare yourself a lot of grief. Your reward isn’t heaven or popularity or riches. It’s just such a good feeling of doing the right thing.

I call it a great way to live.

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