“Don’t Look Up!” — A Philosophical Reflection
What is the Good Life?
What would you do if you had a couple of days left to live? Such a question can immediately stop you in your tracks and force you to contemplate what matters to you and, equally important, what does not. Such is the fundamental question behind the latest Netflix movie, Don’t Look Up! I’ve heard many say that they didn’t enjoy this movie. It’s a profound statement because, in some lights, I didn’t “enjoy” it either. I found it very deep and thought-provoking, but it was far from pleasant. Indeed, this would never be cause for avoidance for a Stoic. Therefore, what lessons can we take from this movie?
What Is The Good Life?
First, it is worth explaining what can constitute a good life. Broadly speaking, philosophy as a way of life moves you towards something better and away from something worse. Different philosophies have different ways of achieving this “better” life, but generally, they agree on what it means.
The Greeks used the word eudaemonia to describe what constituted a good life. Modern interpretations include happiness or flourishing; I prefer to use the term meaningful. I believe a meaningful life in which the suffering inherent to life ceases to be relevant is ultimately what eudaemonia was to the Greeks. Stoicism and Epicureanism both think this to be the goal in life, though they disagree on how to get there.
The Epicureans believed that pleasure was the principal goal of life, while the Stoics believed that only good moral character could lead you to eudaemonia. Epicureanism values friendship, learning, and other pleasures (though in moderation) and discourages political involvement. Stoicism urges you to do the right thing, even though it may not be pleasant for you; what’s good for the world may not be suitable for you individually. It doesn’t discourage friendship, learning, or pleasure but seeks to use these externals in a way to cultivate a good character and make the world a better place.
The point is that though many agree on what the ideal future feels like, they may disagree on the best way to get there. However, when we consider the question of “what it means to live,” there do seem to be significant similarities between what is valuable.
My conversation with Dr. Jeremy Sherman on the Strong Stoic Podcast revealed: organisms adapt to fit their environments, and humans must fit three environments. You must feel good in your skin, you must fit in with those around you, and you must be aligned with reality itself. A way of life that doesn’t consider these three environments important will undoubtedly result in unnecessary suffering.
Interestingly enough, this is reflected well in Stoicism, which places a significant emphasis on balancing your requirements with the world and keeping that aligned with truth. The maxim “live according to nature” can be dissected down into “live according to your nature,” “live according to the shared nature of humanity,” and “live according to Mother Nature.”
What it means to live can be understood as adopting responsibility that allows you to be happy with who you are. By having a harmonious relationship with people around you (often including close friends and family), and pursuing truth so that reality doesn’t pull the rug out from under your feet.
Don’t Look Up!
With an understanding of what philosophy, particularly Stoicism, would say in response to the question of “what it means to live,” let’s have a look at the theme of Don’t Look Up! I’ll provide a summary of the plot. Still, first I’m obliged to alert you to potential spoilers. Read on at your own risk.
A team of astrologists discovers an incoming comet destined to destroy the earth if humanity doesn’t do anything about it. They try to alert the president of the USA, but she is so preoccupied with polls and election results that she pays no heed. They then turn to major media outlets and find a similar reaction — all they care about is their numbers. Eventually, they make a plan to destroy the comet but change their minds at the last minute when the CEO of a significant company discovers that there are precious metals in the meteor and that they’d make a lot of profit if they extracted such metals.
Soon enough, the comet is visible. Humanity can see it coming. However, the president says to the citizens, “don’t look up! They are trying to scare you!” In the meantime, the scientists are working hard to find another solution, but they ultimately lose hope when the president’s plan fails. At this point, destruction is imminent. Aware of their demise, they decide to spend their last night with their family. They went grocery shopping while discussing the little things — the difference in quality between wild-caught salmon and farmed salmon, for example. They have a beautiful dinner with friends and family while discussing more of the little things — on being very particular on the way to prep one’s coffee, for example — right up until the comet strikes the earth and kills everyone.
I must first state that things change slightly when death is imminent. Many philosophies assume a future, so it’s not an entirely accurate perspective that translates to everyday life. However, that in no way means that lessons can’t be extracted from the exercise. The Stoics use the thought of imminent death as a catalyst to live a good life.
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”
If You Had One Day to Live
Let’s get back to the question that started this article: what would you do if you had one day to live? Like the family in Don’t Look Up!, you would probably want to spend your remaining hours with those who you love. However, you likely would not want to do anything extravagant, like sky-diving or visiting the Grand Canyon. No, you’d probably want to do the things you do every day with the people you love — grocery shopping, cooking, sharing a meal, hugging, talking about memories, and the little things in life.
What is truly fascinating to me is that we come to regard many of these things in life as tasks. We don’t get excited about going to the grocery store; we consider it a chore. We aren’t thrilled by the idea of cooking dinner with our family; we would rather order take-out. It really does seem to be the case that the things that really matter in life are those very things that we get the opportunity to do every single day.
Every day of your life, you get the opportunity to be present in whatever you are doing. You get to grind fresh coffee beans and enjoy a cup of Joe. You get to kiss your partner when you return from work. You get to comment on little things like the difference between wild-caught salmon and farmed salmon. Every. Single. Day.
Understand that it’s not so much achieving the goal that really makes life worthwhile — it’s being present in each and every moment on the road to achieving that goal.
What About Success and Goals?
Success is important. Goals are important. Self-improvement is undeniably important, not only philosophically but psychologically. However, understand that this isn’t in disagreement with the lesson above. Understand that it’s not so much achieving the goal that makes life worthwhile — it’s being present in every moment on the road to achieving that goal. You can have as many plans as you want while also being present along the way.
I’ll end with a short Charlie Brown story. There’s a scene where Charlie Brown and Snoopy are staring out over the water while seated on a pier. Charlie Brown says, “one day, we will die Snoopy.”
And Snoopy replies, “Yes, but every other day we will live….”
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.