I think of history as a wonderbox, similar to the curiosity cabinets of the Renaissance--what the Germans called a Wunderkammer. Collectors used these cabinets to display an array of fascinating and unusual objects, each with a story to tell, such as a miniature Turkish abacus or a Japanese ivory carving. Passed down from one generation the another, they were repositories of family lore and learning, tastes and travels, a treasured inheritance. History, too, hands down to us intriguing stories and ideas from a cornucopia of cultures. It is our shared inheritance of curious, often fragmented artefacts that we can pick up at will and contemplate in wonder. There is much to learn about life by opening the wonderbox of history.
Goethe's desire to 'discover myself in the objects I see' should matter to us just as much as his capacity for breaking conventions. He believed that excessive self-reflection and navel gazing could be harmful, leading to emotional confusion and paralysis. His approach to following Socrates's dictum 'know thyself' was not to ruminate about the state of his soul, but to launch himself into life, nurturing his curiosity about people, places, art and landscape. 'Man only knows himself insofar as he knows the world,' he wrote. This does not mean, though, that we should be filling our days with incessant activites, reducing ourselves from human beings to human doings. Rather, his point was that self-understanding comes not only from philosophical introspection but from experiental 'outrospection'.
The ultimate message from Goethe's Italian journey, however, is this: if we truly want to change how we live, there may come a point where we simply have to stop thinking and planning, and take action. This idea has, over the centuries, gone by many names, from carpe diem to a leap of faith to the slogan 'just do it'. It is about nothing less than choosing to make your life extraordinary, and living in such a way that your last years are not filled with regret for what you have failed to do. If we feel trapped by life, or hesitant about how to move forward, we can always ask ourselves what bold move Goethe might make if he were in our shoes. What would he do to seize the day?
One of the golden threads that weaves its way through the history of how to live is that the mystery of existence is constituted by our relations with one another. While some people may discover meaning in God, nature, fighting for a cause or climbing a corporate ladder, it is through our relationships with other human beings that we are most likely to find fulfilment. There is a second, life-enhancing thread to be found in history, which is that giving is good for you. Giving may be our surest route to a life of purpose and fulfilment.
The world is filled with extraordinary conversations which are just waiting to happen. We can bring them to life by cultivating curiosity about strangers. You might make a particular effort to have a conversation with the person sitting next to you on the bus, or the guy at the corner shop who sells you a newspaper every day, or the new employee who eats his lunch alone in the office cafeteria. You will need courage to get beyond idle chit-chat and find out how they see the world--what are their views on family life, politics, creativity, death? And be ready to share your own thoughts, to make it a mutual empathic exchange.
I believe that, in our era dominated by specialisation, we need to rediscover the Renaissance ideal of the generalist. First, we can join professions that require mastery of numerous skills or areas of knowledge. Another option would be to pursue several careers at the same time, or one after another. A final option is to bring the thinking of other professions and disciplines into your own, so you become a generalist without having to change jobs. It may be worth learning to wear the hats of different professions in order to stimulate us to ask new questions or challenge our assumptions and conventional thinking.
Can you really say that all your senses are highly attuned, that you regularly nourish them and give them the attention they deserve? As you eat your breakfast or walk to work, how alert are you to all the sounds, tastes, textures and scents around you? Failing to nurture our senses not only detracts from our appreciation of the subtleties and beauties of everyday experience, but also strips away layers of meaning from our lives.
We might each think of ourselves as sensory travellers, embarking on tours of our local landscape to discover its hidden depths and beauties. Could you create a sensory itinerary for exploring your neighbourhood, or even your own home? Or we might simply decide to focus our awareness on the smell and texture of the food we eat each evening, looking for exactly the right words to describe our culinary experiences. We might equally endeavour to hone our nontraditional senses, for instance by doing yoga or the Alexander Technique to develop our kinaesthetic sense of bodily movement and balance.
The journey should be a challenge, and ideally involve walking. We ought to spend time travelling, giving ourselves enough headspace for contemplation and going at a sufficiently slow pace to appreciate the beauties and sorrows of the landscape, whether it is a mountain range or an inner-city slum. We should also be dealing with situations of adversity, so the journey becomes a quest to learn about ourselves. It can be an edifying experience to forgo our regular comforts for a while and be forced to push ourselves to reach our goal. We should cultivate ourselves as wanderers. The pilgrimage tradition suggests we should not obsess about our destinations. We can set ourselves an objective but it may not matter if we never arrive, as long as the journey has taught us something about the art of living. Maybe a final destination is even something to avoid. Bashō would advise us not to plan the routes of our travels too carefully, and even to throw away the map if we are brave enough. Permit yourself to become lost--that is the best way to find yourself, he would surely say. As you walk through a big city on your journey, allow the sun to be your guide, or follow curious smells or unusual sounds, using your senses as a compass. Before reaching your destination, get off the train at a station whose name intrigues you, or where nobody else is disembarking, placing your hopes in serendipity.
I believe that the real monuments worth visiting are people. That is where the fascination of travel truly lies. If you recall your own vacations, often the most memorable ones are those when you befriended the barman in a small village, or when a rickshaw driver took you to his home to meet his family. Such experiences give us insights into unknown worlds. We must reinvent tourism and move beyond the high-culture legacy of Baedeker and the Grand Tour. Our aim should be to become observers of--and even participants in--other people's daily ways of living. Directing our antennae towards the social practices of different countries and cultures can not only illuminate new possibilities for how we conduct our lives, but reveal how strange our own ways might be.
Biophilia prompts us to radically rethink who we are. For a century, psychoanalysis has assumed that our physical body, our outer skin, provides the boundary of the self. Obvious, right? The mind lies within it, and therapy is the process of introspectively exploring our inner being. But biophilia suggests that our minds are, at least in part, located outside our corporeal selves. This view of the self is central to the developing fied of 'ecopsychology', founded by the historian and environmental thinker Theodore Roszak. The idea is that if our mental wellbeing is intimately linked with nature through phenomena such as biophilia, then our psychological self is not separate from nature but part of it. When we look in the mirror, we are only seeing a portion of who we are; the rest is reflected in the scenery in the background. 'The psyche,' says Roszak, 'remains sympathetically bonded to the Earth that mothered us into existence.' We possess an 'ecological unconscious' that lies at the core of our being. When we step into the wild, we respect and nurture it. When we destroy nature and live apart from it, we are effectively destroying ourselves. Biophilia reveals the intricate relationship between each of us and the biosphere, and tells us that we are part of Gaia herself.
It is difficult to see beyond the limitations of the culture that has shaped our ways of looking at the world and at ourselves. We are trapped in the perspective our our own time. Artists like Cézanne and Picasso were experimenters who broke the rules. If we wish to live truly creative and adventurous lives, we can take our inspiration from them and become experimenters who reject the social norms that bind us, discovering the freedom to develop our own perspective on the art of living. This is not to say that conventions should be broken for their own sake, only that we should become aware of their invisible presence, and consider defying those that might limit the possibilities for living a fulfilling life of our own choosing.
Life and death are the most intimate of relations. We cannot know one without meeting the other. How can we bring this knowledge into everyday living? By becoming aware that we are constantly surrounded by both life and death, and that every moment or period of our lives deserves special attention because it will pass into a little death of its own, a reflection of the impermanence of all things. You can think of this as developing a new sense--the sense of transience. A flower opens its petals but is destined to fade, so smell the flower now. You will only be in your twenties once, so live them with a footloose passion before your twenty-something self disappears forever. You will not always be fit and healthy enough to make that epic cycle ride with your partner around the coast, so pump up your tyres and get pedalling. Your parents are elderly and may not live much longer so make the effort to visit them more often; why live with the regret later that you did not see them enough before they died? Whatever your age, now is the moment for the fire of your life to burn brightly.
You could even take the idea of a sense of transience a stage further, by ritually marking the end of significant periods in your life. When you change jobs, get married or move countries, hold an imaginary memorial part for the passing of the person you will no longer be, the life you will no longer live. When you hit your thirties, you might conduct a funeral for your twenties, which have now died, never to return. Or you could create a 'tombstone book', in which you write epitatphs for each passing phase in your life, perhaps at the end of each season, year or decade. This will all serve yo raise your awareness of those little deaths that constitue our lives, whose recognition can bring us closer to living with greater presence.