Drink Deeply

For most of human history, the range of experience open to most people was narrow and limited. Untold millions of people lived and died never traveling more than a few miles from their birthplaces and never meeting more than a few hundred other individuals from their own communities, their horizon largely limited to the handful of miles that could be easily traveled by foot. Crossing oceans, though it was possible, was a risky and dangerous endeavor that could take weeks, months, or years. Local events and local people, for the vast majority, formed the horizon that circumscribed their world.

In parallel with the limitations of the physical horizon were the limitations of the intellectual horizon. Humanity’s intellectual reach, for the most part, consisted of small, local pools of knowledge largely cut off from each other, mainly limited to the folk wisdom and tradition that each community needed to make its own living. And again, though some ideas could and did travel long distances, their transmission was slow, limited, and imperfect. For much of the time in which they existed, books were rare and expensive luxuries, and libraries the domain only of scholars and the rich.

But none of this is true any longer. The explosive growth of technology for conveying our information and our selves, and the concomitant merging of many small human groups into one global civilization, has blown open the doors of our limitations and opened up a vastly wider pool of potential experience and understanding to a far greater number of people. I wrote in “The New Ten Commandments” that even the smallest facet of the world holds enough intricacy for a lifetime of study, and a fortiori it is even more true that the world as a whole holds enough richness and detail to occupy a thousand lifetimes. Though one life is all we have and so we cannot hope to grasp it all, we should nevertheless seek to enrich that life to the highest degree possible with a diversity of wisdom and experience, the better to make its living worthwhile. Life is like a great and untapped well, one from which we should seek to drink as deeply as possible – to seek out as many new experiences as we can, to learn as many new things as we can, and to absorb, as best as possible, the fullness of adventure, companionship, and wonder that this world has to offer.

Personally, I know this desire well. There are so many places I want to visit in my lifetime, so many experiences that I want to have had for myself. I want to stand on the shore of every ocean and dip my fingers in its waters; I want my boots to be stained with the dust of every continent. I want to stand beneath the humid green cathedral of a tropical rainforest and upon the vast icy expanse of a glacier; I want to see the fierce bright stars of a desert night and the dancing lights of the aurora, and I want to sit on the beach and watch the sun rise. I want to travel through every major city in the world, immerse myself in its culture and breathe the air of its history, and speak to its people in their own tongues. I want to visit the places that are part of our global heritage and walk where the ancestors of humanity left their footprints; I want to trek through churches and temples and observe for myself all the ways human beings have imagined to interact with these strange beings they call gods; and I want to learn as much as I can about every field of human knowledge – if not the fine details, then at least the bright outlines – and follow the methods of the determined men and women who uncovered them. I want to reach out across the ages and touch the thoughts of history’s greatest minds. I want to do all this and a thousand other things as well, so that I can know, when the end of my life draws near, that there is not a single experience I sought and did not find, not a single opportunity I missed and lived to regret. And I am confident, dear readers, that you feel the same way as I do. (My philosophy of drinking deeply, for example, I find to resonate strongly with Richard Chappell of Philosophy, et cetera‘s ethics for living.)

But although there are vast and beautiful vistas awaiting us, and although the gate is open, the path remains largely untrodden. Despite all the knowledge that is out there waiting to be found, all the adventures waiting to be had, far too many people are content not to explore. In the remainder of this post, I will try to examine the reasons why people choose this course and offer reasons to dissuade them.

First, following this philosophy does not require luxuries available only to the wealthy. The mistake of most people is to believe that drinking deeply of life requires a person to be rich, but nothing could be further from the truth. For all its glittering allure, the path of riches is an illusion. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that money cannot buy happiness. Once a person has sufficient resources to provide for basic material needs and comforts, additional money does nothing at all to increase one’s level of happiness or contentment, and may even decrease it. If anything, great wealth often has an isolating effect, sowing seeds of envy and suspicion and distancing people from the genuineness of human contact and experience that truly instills life with meaning. Many people believe that the only path to happiness is wealth, and work assiduously their whole lives to obtain it, while others believe that gaining wealth is impossible but that happiness cannot be had any other way, and so they do not even try. But both these groups are wrong. Although our superficiality-obsessed culture places enormous value and emphasis on getting rich, the implied promise of happiness is a phantasm. True joyfulness and contentment lie along another road.

Another obstacle to human flourishing is the tendency, found frequently but not exclusively in religion, to never seek out ideas or experiences that might disturb comfortable and long-established habits. Some people are content to drink shallowly, living in the deadening slump of unvarying routine, keeping their eyes on the ground and never seeking out knowledge or experience beyond what is necessary for them to make their own way through life. Many others live in an echo chamber of conformity, daily immersing themselves in a sea of unthinking consensus to better reinforce their own prejudices, and neglecting the many other roads open to them in the belief that one writer, one book, one culture or one church contains everything worth knowing about. This belief is in error, and again, both these groups of people are missing out. Drinking deeply requires treading new and unknown roads, yes; it requires facing and overcoming the challenges that life presents; and it requires a person to challenge themselves, to reach out to new realms of thought and leave behind the comforts of the familiar. These obstacles may be frightening to the timid, but only through them lies the true path to happiness. We can boldly step up to these challenges and surpass them, and be rewarded for our effort; or we can avoid them and fall by the wayside, and spend the rest of life hobbled by what we have lost or never tried.

In truth, drinking deeply is less a plan of action than it is an outlook, a state of mind. Though it can involve physical travel, it need not. Pared down to its essence, drinking deeply means seeking out new ideas and new experiences, coming in contact with worlds of thought different from your own, and stumbling across things you may have never considered or known of. And, I firmly believe, this philosophy of spontaneity and openness to adventure is the only true way to fill a life with happiness and meaning. Those who never seek out the new can never know true contentment in this life; but on the other side, those who try will be well rewarded for their trouble. To all the lonely and confused seekers out there, to all those who feel their life is lacking, to all those who are searching for something they know not what, I urge you – take a drink from the well of life before you! Its waters are pure and sweet, and whoever takes a deep draught will not regret it.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Tommykey

    Unfortunately, most peoples’ idea of drinking deeply is to drink heavily.

  • Doug Purdie

    1. Money can buy happiness, but is not guaranteed with your purchase. You must spend wisely.

    2. I jumped on your link to “The New Ten Commandments” because I had such an idea, but found out my idea was not similar. I read an article once where the author theorized that the word “shall” was misinterpreted to mean “should” when its original meaning was more like “will”. In other words God was not commanding what we should not do but informing us of what we were incapable, therefore, would not do.
    Of course, the idea was absurd. I offered myself as proof as I have coveted my neighbor’s wife for 6 years (in fantasy only – never having so much as winked at her). I then thought that an all powerful diety’s laws should be absolutely unbreakable. They would go something like…

    - Thou shalt not excede the speed of light.
    - The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter shall be (approx.) 3.1415…

    … etc.

    3. I had been a great admirerer and follower of the Golden Rule until I married. My wife informed me of an even better rule. She calls it the Platinum Rule:

    “Do unto others as others would have you do unto them.”

    She said, “Isn’t it better to treat people the way they want to be treated than treating them the way you want to be treated?” Since then the Golden Rule has struck me as somewhat self-centered.

  • Philip Thomas

    The Golden rule is indeed self-centered, which has the advantage that you can readily use it. The Platinum Rule can be really quite difficult to apply!

  • tobe38

    Great post, but I feel I must take exception to your points on wealth and happiness. I agree, of course, that money is not a ‘be all and end all’ solution to life, and I can believe that the novelty of having any material possession you desire could wear off. However, one novelty that I can’t imagine declining is the joy of being spared the financial despair and hardship that so many people endure. Where’s my next pay cheque coming from? Can I afford my rent this month? Questions a rich man need never ask.

    Maybe that doesn’t directly contribute towards one’s happiness, but it certainly detracts from potential unhappiness.

  • Philip Thomas

    You think rich men never ask where there next pay cheque coming from, or whether they can afford their normal level of outgoings this month? Money worries cross class barriers! Of course, it is rather more serious for the poor, but there are plenty of rich men who have comitted suicide over money…

  • Alex Weaver

    Doug: Two problems. First, the problem with your “platinum rule” formulation is that it lends itself far too readily transmuted into “Treat others as you prefer to believe they want to be treated,” thus proving a pestilently fruitful source of self-serving rationalizations.

    Second, invariably treating others as they want to be treated invites and eventually guarantees exploitation; treating people as they want to be treated allows one to be held hostage by the most demanding and unreasonable person one has contact with. Instead, the best thing to do is to treat others the way a reasonable person would want to be treated, and the simplest criterion for this is to consider one’s own desires if one were in a similar situation.

  • http://www.gibsonian.blogspot.com Ian B Gibson

    I feel I must take exception to your points on wealth and happiness [...] one novelty that I can’t imagine declining is the joy of being spared the financial despair and hardship that so many people endure.

    Erm, did you actually read the post?

    Once a person has sufficient resources to provide for basic material needs and comforts, additional money does nothing at all to increase one’s level of happiness or contentment, and may even decrease it.

    Obviously, there is a certain minimum level of wealth required for most people to be happy, but beyond this the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

    For some people, the pursuit of wealth seems to be an addiction in the same manner as gambling, sex, food, drink or extreme sports are for others – all about the thrill of the moment. This is not to say that this particular addiction is necessarily as destructive as many of the others often are; the point is that short-term pleasure and long-term happiness can often be in conflict with each other.

  • Ignoramus

    Those phrases “boldly step up”, “seeking out new ideas and new experiences” “worlds of thought different from your own” remind me of all the reasons why I used to love Star Trek for years and years, and still watch the reruns, because for me that series always seemed to embody the philosophy that Adam is advocating here.

  • Philip Thomas

    I love Star Trek too. All-powerful beings get a bad press there, of course (notably in Star Trek V). So does Heaven (Generations). Thougn there is a resurrection (Star Trek III).

  • SpeirM

    Bye, ya’ll. (Yes, I live in Texas.) It’s been fun. I’ve got to go, uh, drink deeply. Or something.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    The Golden Rule gets me into trouble a lot. I love to use sarcasm, and all my friends and family didn’t mind heaping it on me in return, which I had no problem with at all. But then I married into a family that has thin skin. Very. Thin. Skin.

    Now I can’t treat others the way I would treat myself. If I do, I end up hurting a lot of feelings. In that case, a “platinum rule” like mentioned above is required. I agree that it’s hard to implement the platinum rule, since you don’t know exactly what others want (especially wives, right guys?).

  • Alex Weaver

    The Golden Rule gets me into trouble a lot. I love to use sarcasm, and all my friends and family didn’t mind heaping it on me in return, which I had no problem with at all. But then I married into a family that has thin skin. Very. Thin. Skin.

    Now I can’t treat others the way I would treat myself. If I do, I end up hurting a lot of feelings. In that case, a “platinum rule” like mentioned above is required.

    I dunno; my general position is that making concessions to unreasonable people is usually a mistake, particularly from a long-run perspective (“give an inch” and all that). From Adam’s essay:

    The key recognition is that, as human beings with a theory of mind, we may not have perfect knowledge of how another person is feeling at any given moment, we can make reasonable extrapolations, and that is all that universal utilitarianism requires. This ethical system does not demand that we use some sort of sixth sense to gauge with exacting precision how each person feels about their situation. Instead, it asks us to consider how a reasonable person would feel and act in a given situation, approximate the net happiness and suffering produced by an action’s effects on all relevant people, and make our decision based on those grounds. (If it were otherwise, this moral system could be held hostage by the most unreasonable person, the one who histrionically suffered the greatest self-inflicted harm as a result of any real or perceived offense.)

    And, no offense, your in-laws sound like a textboox example of that last bit.

    I agree that it’s hard to implement the platinum rule, since you don’t know exactly what others want (especially wives, right guys?).

    I don’t think that’s inherently the case, but there does seem to be some degree of socialization pressure on women against having well-thought-out, well-reasoned opinions, as opposed to gut-level and heavily mood-influenced preferences or prejudices (“women are more emotional”). And there seems to be a great deal of socialization pressure on women to preferentially communicate their wishes in an indirect, implicit, or passive-aggressive fashion, sometimes to such a degree as to invite being misinterpreted as a symptom of an undeveloped theory of mind. This is dysfunctional, since it does not increase satisfaction of either partner in a relationship and needlessly creates conflict and frustration, and there’s no good reason women (and men) can’t overcome these sorts of pressures and learn to communicate effectively; hence, expressions implying that this is “normal” (in the sense that the bulk of humans infuriatingly confuse with “desirable”) make me uneasy.