I should be a little bit more precise. By ‘thing’ I don’t mean a single individual act, but rather a kind of consistent practice. So, how can you order and orient your life in a way that would be most fruitful and beneficial to the world? Yet again, further clarification is warranted. What is ‘the world’? I have in mind a kind of fluctuation of totalities. Rather than following some form of utilitarianism, I’m comfortable with the idea that, just as our consistent practice will not be identical over time, so, too, will “the world” shift and change, at times grow, at times shrink, and so on.
So, then. How can you order and orient your life in a way that entails a continuing reorientation and reordering towards bringing benefit to the world? What’s the best thing you can do for the world?
I am pretty confident the question is still too imprecise and too poorly articulated, but I’ll hazard an answer for myself anyway.
The very best thing I can do for the world is to cultivate self-awareness, empathy, and comfort, in myself and in my relationships. Another way to put what I think amounts to the same thing: the very best thing I can do for the world is to learn to stand where there is no foundation. This is a practice that can never end, which, I think, is as “the best thing I can do for the world” should be. I can’t simply accomplish that best thing and go on with my life — my life is, my life must be, a continual striving for that best thing. But that best thing is not an idol, not some monolith I seek to conquer; it, like me, is in flux. It is to be found in the shifting relationships that comprise it.
I think one of the reasons we humans feel so cut off from ourselves is because we aren’t selves to be cut off from, but conceive of ourselves that way. What I mean is, we think of ourselves as if we are one thing, but since we’re not really that one thing or any one thing, we feel ourselves to be somehow broken apart from the one thing we think we are, but don’t feel we are. It is, in a way, a philosophical problem. We are doing a poor job of interpreting ourselves, because we are taking ourselves to be something interpretable, and trying, therefore, to pin ourselves down out of confusion. I’m not sure how much better a job we really can do, but it’s worth trying, I think.
One minor aspect of this “best thing” I am trying to do for the world is finding some way of living in the world through which I can practice my practice. So, for example, I find that Buddhist thought stimulates my philosophical meanderings, and I find that scholarship is a good match for my inclinations and interests. I worry, as I’ve mentioned in this space before, about falling too deeply into “specialization,” and I worry about all the burdens and responsibilities that will come with a future career, if I’m lucky enough to find a position after finishing my doctorate, in academia. But hey, that’s part of the challenge, part of the world, and a big part of the reason I’m trying to think so hard now about how I’ll be able to do the very best thing I can do for the world for as long as I’m a part of it. In a way, that seems like a third way of putting what still amounts to the same thing: the best thing I can do for the world is to make doing the best thing for the world my constant guiding light. Now, to iron out the details with a little bit more precision…