Deck of Cards, Pile of Books: Biographies and the Art of Living

whats-your-playFate hands each of us a deck of cards, and we call it Life. Throughout our days, we discard some and add others; and we reshuffle the deck from time to time. Certainly, we have a semblance of control, but no amount of discarding, adding, and reshuffling will change the fact that at any given point, we are stuck with a specific hand; a particular set of circumstances that come with attendant limits and possibilities. That enable and constrain us in different ways.

And so we play. At times, we lay down all our cards on the table; at others, we keep them to ourselves; moments when we strategize and withhold our hand, biding our time and later stringing together a pair, a trio, a full house or a royal flush that wins us life’s little battles; And there are days when we feel that nothing seems to go our way, and that life has given us a bad draw from the get-go.  But then again, the game ends and we lose, yet the cards are reshuffled and we get another chance to play.

There is a strain of moral thought that emphasizes the role of imagination in ethics. Being a good person and doing the right thing essentially entails imagining and connecting with others, or, as the saying has it, putting ourselves in others’ shoes and walking with them for a mile or two, perhaps longer. There is of course no guarantee that the more imagination you have the more ethical you are. We can perfectly imagine what others are feeling, yet for all sorts of reasons, take no action to address them.

In a game of cards, as in life, haven’t we had the temptation to look at another’s hand? Haven’t we wished that we could take a peek at it so that we could and would know what to do?

We actually do this everyday; we get glimpses of what cards others hold without the stigma of being called a cheat.  The truth is that our cards are intimately tied with theirs. We share them in common, and draw on their experiences as they do on ours. We read or gossip about each other’s lives, Facebook feeds, and listen to the joys and pains of our friends, family, and loved ones.

With few exceptions, however, as occasional glimpses into other people’s lives, this intimacy and interdependence lacks depth; how many of us really know our friends and family, let alone our passing acquaintances? At any rate, apart perhaps from our lovers and very close friends and families, we rarely get a chance to know someone deeply, closely, and intensely.

So what would it mean to get inside another person’s life? What would it be like if we could take her place and see the cards she had, how she played them, and how her choices panned out? Certainly, we could never be in full possession of this information, but biography comes the closest; an exercise in empathy and the imagination, it’s a genre that has much to teach and inspire us.

Through a biography, we can invade someone’s privacy without our being called a cheat and voyeur; it puts us in another’s shoes and allows us to take a look at her cards, a peek that offers front-row, first-hand lessons in the art of life.

Like us, the subject of a biography held a set of cards, in a different time and in a different place, both presenting their own challenges. How did he respond to them? How did she go about doing so? How can his story, his decisions, and his choices inspire us, we who live in this era with altogether different circumstances? Having lived before us, she offers guidance and advice, and companionship and cautionary tales. 

Biographies allow access to other people’s lives that we rarely, if at all, cannot have in ours. Reading a full-length biography of say, Immanuel Kant, would give us more information about the sage of Konigsberg that we would about most people we know. In this way, the subjects of a biography become not just teachers and advisers but also virtual companions in life, if not close friends. Occasionally, they take us with time-traveling adventures to a different times and places. Reading about Dante can take us to medieval Italy, and James Joyce through early twentieth Dublin, Paris, and Italy.

It is amazing how despite the worlds of difference between us and Joyce, Dante, and Kant, we can still relate to their concerns. That, I guess, is the magic of being human, which brings with it attendant baggage. They too had to make their way through their society, just as we do. They had their turn in the game, and now it’s ours. It’s comforting and reassuring to know that they played the same game too, rather like finding yourself in Wimbledon and realizing that Roger Federer played in the very same arena.  At the same time, however, we simply hope that we too can do as they did, or did not.

19 May 2015; 22 February 2016

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