I have been wondering lately about the value of my life against financial criteria. Looking at my life from that point of view is not going to provide me with a great sense of achievement since my salary is far from matching the amount of support I provide my patients and the energy I spend in order to make a difference in their lives. As a lot of us know, working hard for a big organisation only usually benefits those at the top, enabling them to earn more money and get all the credit for the hard work of employees on the ground. The ultimate goal of meeting targets in a public organisation has never been to increase its employees wellbeing or standard of living as hard work is never rewarded in any way, either via monetary means or recognition. Ultimately employee’s lives are limited to desperately trying to make ends meet and recover from an exhausting week at work.
So what is the answer? Going self-employed? I guess this would be the answer provided one has the skills of a sales person, which are usually the gift of the gab. Not everyone has those skills so this could make turning one’s life around quite difficult. I can’t help but admiring those who have managed to make that move but I have been confronted recently with a very successful person who turned out to have no idea of the difference between truth and lies, being so used to playing with the truth in order to get their own way with no bad conscience whatsoever, hurting people in the process. After spending quite a few weeks beating myself up by comparing myself to such a successful person and putting myself down for not being as financially secure as them, I accidentally – or not – found the answer to my conundrum in a book called “Petit Traite de Vie Interieure” written by a French philosopher called Frederic Lenoir. Suddenly everything fell into place. The author, by using an example from real modern life and Socratic questioning, demonstrated how the lure of gain can take people away from honesty and integrity.
Here is the story. Jacques Seguela, a successful French advertiser, said the following on a live TV show: “How could anyone have a go at the president for having a Rolex? Everyone has a Rolex. If one doesn’t have a Rolex by the age of 50 they most certainly have failed in life!” This comment raised a lot of criticism from the French public, which led Mr Seguela to apologise for saying something really stupid, showing poor communication skills, as unexpected from an advertiser. Frederic Lenoir used this example in a Socratic context by making up a dialogue between the advertiser and the philosopher Socrates:
“Seguela: Did you see that Socrates, I admitted making a big mistake! You can be proud of me!
Socrates: Yes I heard you Seguela. You did indeed admit making a mistake but you never said you had told a lie or something stupid. What you regretted was to have said the wrong thing. So your regret is about the way you presented your thought rather than its content. I don’t blame you for saying the wrong thing as it happens to me too. I only blame you because you said what you shouldn’t have said in order to keep looking good in the eyes of the public opinion. Whereas I expected from you to regret having told us a lie, as a virtuous man would. Forget about your image for a minute and answer this question with sincerity: what is for you the sign of a successful life? Is it about showing external signs of wealth, have a good reputation and a lot of money? Or is it more about internal signs such as having true friends, a peaceful soul, a happy knowledge of Truth, Good and Beauty, a virtuous life, respectful of oneself and others?
Seguela: it certainly is the latter.
Socrates: then you are not an idiot, but a liar.
Seguela: the word is far too strong! I only said these things out of professional habit. I am so used to making things up in order to sell objects that I can’t recognise the truth from a lie. I have a difficult job. It’s been a long time since I haven’t thought in terms of truth or goodness but in terms of efficiency and gain.
Socrates: so you are a perfect Sophist, one of those fine talkers obsessed with money and who only look to convince their audience through oratory art, whether they utter massive errors or pitiful lies?
Seguela: everyone has a role a fulfil. You are a philosopher and you are looking for the truth. I am smooth talker and I am looking to make money.
Socrates: You are an honest man Seguela, but the people who listen to you should know that the only truth in your words and those of people like you is profit.
Seguela: You might be right Socrates, let’s have a laugh and a drink as we might die tomorrow!
Socrates: This is the very reason why we should all look for the truth, Seguela. Life is too short and too precious to spend it in distracting ourselves and accumulating perishable treasures. Let’s rather look to understand the real meaning of life and enrich our souls.”
This was the answer I was looking for, which brought peace to my restless mind. In comparison to that very person who kept lying to me in order for me to see them in their best light, I am very materialistically poor indeed, but only because I don’t lie and live an honest life. That person – whom I am very pleased to have kicked out of my life despite them trying to manipulate me with the power of their lies – is much wealthier than me and so admirable for their financial success. But I feel so much richer for being true to myself and everyone I get in contact with. I would much rather be poor and honest than rich and a fraud. At least I am proud of myself for the right reason, for the beauty of my soul and my clear conscience, not for the size of my house, my car or my wallet at the cost of my integrity.