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How should I live?

Veronica le Nevez is a recent arrival at Webdiary. She writes of herself:

lives in Sydney and works in environmental policy. Her politics could best be described as centre left. Veronica has wide-ranging interests in politics, the process of policy making, and the ideas and philosophies that shape politics. She is an egalitarian, in the sense that her view is that all people should have access to decent quality health care, housing, and education. She is against the politics of promoting personal choice in all spheres of life. Her view is that this is a political device designed to make people feel they have control over their circumstances, when control is actually vested in the powerful elite. Workchoices is an example of this philosophy.

This is the first piece that Veronica has contributed to Webdiary; many thanks.

How should I live?
by Veronica le Nevez

I was so moved by the Gwyneth Paltrow lifestyle advice site Goop.com that despite being lazy and having a good number of other more important things to do, I decided to contribute my thoughts on it to Webdiary. Appropriate sniggering on Ms Paltrow's choice of site name has already been provided by many, so I will avoid that tantalisingly cheap shot and get straight into the substance.

When we're presented with beautiful little vignettes of a celebrity's life (you know, the Annie Liebovitz photo shoot and accompanying breathy homage to the celebrity du jour), it's tempting to think what a charmed life a film star has. Getting a golden tan on a beautiful Mediterranean beach. Tick. Marrying a rock star. Tick. With a social conscience. Tick, tick, tick! But we know that this is all a confection – a fantasy that we participate in while we're in the supermarket queue or the doctor's waiting room. Don't we?

You see the thing that surprised me most about Ms Paltrow's website was that she has bought into the fantasy hook, line and sinker. Goop starts with a slogan 'nourish the inner aspect'. A key question here is, the inner aspect of what? But I will return to that later.

You could be forgiven at this point for thinking that the purpose of Goop is to provide some information on spirituality or living a life of meaning and purpose. No, no, no. Inside Goop are articles on the following topics: – food, diet, travel, lifestyle advice, fashion, and things to see and do. Bog standard fare for any women's magazine. Only with Goop, we get the benefit of Gwyneth's sage advice:

I think we all begin the new year with thoughts of things we would like to improve, learn, be more disciplined about, cut out of our diets. In January 2007 I decided I’d had enough of my saddlebags and post-pregnancy Shar-Pei-like stomach. I met an incredible woman who changed my life. Her name is Tracy Anderson. She is a dancer, a trainer, an "organic plastic surgeon" as my friend Julia calls her. Her program works but you have to work it. For real. Right now she is on tour with Madonna so I do a lot of video chat with her and I do her DVDs. Every once in a while she sends me a little movie to change something up. She sent me this one for the New Year's butt. It’s really hard. But do it like she says to do it and I swear that in ten days you will see your butt change shape. I do it with 1 lb. ankle weights and then I do her Dance Aerobics DVD. Some days I hate it, some days I love it, but above all, I stick with it. The sticktoitivness is what it is all about.

What's the message here? That having the perfect butt can change your life.

Or there is Gwyneth's fashion advice:

In the last GET newsletter I talked about the importance of what I call my uniform – the basic idea of what I am going to wear every season so I can eliminate daily guess work. Personally, I like to stick to the classics in both my everyday life and in the evening. Whether I am going to meet friends for dinner, a cocktail party or a bigger event, the most classic of classics, the little black dress, never fails me. I have found a few great ones in all different price ranges and each has amazing versatility. It could be Zara, it could be Balenciaga, but a well-cut, well-proportioned black dress has gotten me through many a fashion crisis.

At first glance, the message here is that if you are clever about your clothing purchases, you can look great without spending a fortune. However when you scroll down to the pictures, it is a different story. There's Gwyneth wearing shoes by Roger Vivier, then a belt by Yves Saint Lawrence, then boots by Christian Louboutin, etc. The real message is, Gwyneth Paltrow is rich and successful, and if you want to be like Gwyneth you're going to have to find a way to be rich and successful too.

Which brings me back to the slogan 'nourish the inner aspect'. The slogan implies that this website is about spirituality; an inward focus. And yet, everything published on it suggests that Gwyneth's view of spirituality is shopping, dieting, travelling and getting the perfect butt – all while patronisingly imparting her pearls of wisdom from her extraordinary life experience. The question 'what are we nourishing the inner aspect of' is a valid one because Gwyneth's website seems to nourish consumerism, vacuousness and self-worship.

However, the Goop website's similarity to New Idea and New Weekly merely demonstrates a disturbing reality – that our society values the kind of confection portrayed in these magazines as the ultimate life, over a real, rewarding and satisfying life. Clive Hamilton's recent book The Freedom Paradox says it more eloquently:

If we truly want fulfilled and purposeful lives, why do we settle for a life of consumer conformity marked by the pursuit of substitute gratifications such as wealth, the perfect body, celebrity and status?...People continue to pursue greater wealth and consume at even higher levels because they do not know how better to answer the question, 'How should I live?'

Alain de Botton gives it a name – status anxiety. In his book of the same name he defines status anxiety as:

A worry, so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives, that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect; a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one.

Indeed. I realised I was experiencing status anxiety as recently as last weekend.

My husband and I decided to spend the night at an expensive 5 star hotel to celebrate our anniversary and live it up in the lap of luxury for a night. The assumption in this situation is that luxury is good and you will have a good time experiencing it.

On the contrary, I found that very little about the night in the luxury hotel was enjoyable. Not being accustomed to this kind of accommodation, we didn't know how to act, instantly marking ourselves out as 'outsiders' in this situation – partaking in something above our class. We were given a room with no view, which confirmed that in a luxury hotel guests are divided into various classes designed to give rise to instant status anxiety about what class you are assigned to. When we dined in the restaurant, we were given a table with no view, in keeping with our assigned class. The bar was so outrageously expensive that we decided to only have one drink, and were then informed by the staff that they do not take orders at the bar (this was another cue that we were out of our league here). So we decided to have a drink in our room, but the minibar was also so expensive that we decided to ditch all ideas of drinking and celebrated our anniversary with cans of ginger ale and diet coke. The most enjoyable thing about the whole experience was spending time with my husband – something that we could have done at home for free.

So why did we choose the 5 star hotel? I suppose because for one fleeting moment we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the message. The message of the 5 star hotel is simple – 'You've MADE it!' That's the message that's used to sell everything, from clothes to diets to holidays. You've made it, you're worth it – we want to shout to the rooftops that we are successful! But the moment of triumphalism is always short-lived, and always followed by a hollowness – the void that waits for the next purchase, the next triumph. We are so bombarded with choices, and with persuasive arguments for them, that we choose poorly. Perhaps the answer is to cultivate an awareness of the messages we are fed in our society, so that the choices we make bring us more happiness and less status anxiety.

It is refreshing to see that Ms Paltrow, despite thinking that 'guru' and 'film star' are the same thing, has as little idea of how to answer the question 'How should I live?' as the rest of us.


De Botton, A. 2004. Status Anxiety. Penguin Books, London.

Hamilton, C. 2008. The Freedom Paradox. Towards a post-secular ethics. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.


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The perception and all its danger

Perceptions are indeed an interesting thing. Without being a direct witness to the hotel goings on, I will add a few "alternative" perceptions of my own.

On the contrary, I found that very little about the night in the luxury hotel was enjoyable. Not being accustomed to this kind of accommodation, we didn't know how to act, instantly marking ourselves out as 'outsiders' in this situation – partaking in something above our class.

I suspect you paid the bill? No need for a midnight break out the back door and the like? Perhaps you "belong" more than you're willing to admit. An Emma Thompson accent or not, a crisp hundred is still a crisp hundred. And every "successful business operator" understands this.

We were given a room with no view, which confirmed that in a luxury hotel guests are divided into various classes designed to give rise to instant status anxiety about what class you are assigned to.

You probably didn't request a room with a view. The general public is a pushy beast - irrespective of "money status".

When we dined in the restaurant, we were given a table with no view, in keeping with our assigned class.

You probably didn't request a table with a view. You'll also find the tables with a view are reserved in advance - especially during peak periods. On Valentines Day for example, tables can be reserved for years in advance.

The bar was so outrageously expensive that we decided to only have one drink, and were then informed by the staff that they do not take orders at the bar (this was another cue that we were out of our league here).

The better establishments have a policy of table service. I mean, you're indeed paying for it. Due to service traffic from the bar area, you'll probably find the hotel doesn't want this area crowded with people (accidents do happen). There's also the more exotic drinks being served (they take time to make), meaning standing at a bar could go on for a longer period of time. Drinks would be served in order of first in first served. Meaning your bar waiting time (standing about) may be substantial.

Of course the bar attendant could have easily explained the policy, and why, it's in place. That he/she didn't is the sort of thing that drives owners and managers crazy in any service business, and it has since the beginning of time. Piss a customer off, and that's one less future customer. It's funny what "perceptions" can mean to the bottom line - well, not "really" funny.

Richard: Not just one less custormer, Paul-  it's all the others that they tell.


I think, Paul Morella, the most damaging thing about 2008 for me is that Belinda Neil has completely destroyed the significnce for me of the question, "Do you know who I am?" To my total amazement, there still seem to be members of the Austrlian public who can honestly answer "No." Morons - obviously dont read the same things I write.


I thought Paltrow did a fine job portraying Sylvia Plath, under the direction of New Zealander Christine Jeffs (Rain). Consumerist side-ventures like this allow celebrities their independence in their art. My interest stops at the point at which the art stops.

Reduce personal choice - or I'll reduce it for you

"She is against the politics of promoting personal choice in all spheres of life."

- Veronica le Nevez

My goodness. Imagine that as a campaign slogan. Wouldn't that be a winner?

"And today's special guest is Veronica le Nevez who has been campaigning to reduce personal choice in all spheres of public life..."

Is that what you mean?

Or do you mean we should not promote "personal choice in all spheres of life", limiting personal choice instead to some spheres, and excluding it in others.

I think we already do that.

For example, I cannot go into a neighbourhood pharmacy and just have the chemist rustle me up a nice big hit of smack. As a matter of personal choice.

I cannot randomly avail myself of any of the current selection of nubile lovelies lying in near-naked display today across the sands of Tamarama Beach. Without their permission. And nor should I be so entitled.

I cannot even chop down a tree in my own back-yard without Council approval. And a pox on anyone who so dares.

On the other hand, if your intention is to "Reduce personal choice in all spheres of public life", that is, in all of them regardless, firstly how do you distinguish between public life and private life?

And by how much would you reduce choice? And on whose authority?

For example, is terminating a pregnancy a matter of private or public choice?

Should travel be restricted? That's public.

How about access to media? That's public.

Or are you saying that, as you seem to be saying, certain people shouldn't be allowed to make the sorts of choices that Gwyneth Paltrow made while out on Rodeo Drive or whatever?

Just getting back to your big adventure in the fancy hotel. You say:

"The most enjoyable thing about the whole experience was spending time with my husband – something that we could have done at home for free."

So, why didn't you? Too much choice, or something? Too much money to waste?

And what are you saying, exactly? That you should never have had the choice in the first place? I mean, my God. You even have that choice in Cuba these days (assuming of course you're not a Cuban in which case you won't have that choice even in Cuba).

You say "Consumerism has become a cult."

So? Vegetarianism has become a cult. Puritanism has become a  cult. Personal fitness has become a cult. Tourism has become a cult. The Manson Family has become a cult. Daytime television has become a cult.

If consumerism has become a cult, that's because people have the disposable income that allows them to support such a cult.

Which part of your disposable income are you proposing you should sacrifice?

Which choices, apart from those you find personally uncomfortable (such as staying in fancy hotels) are you going to sacrifice?

Or should I make the choice for you?

Removing all personal choice

Removing all personal choice - what a horrendous idea!  I agree with your comment  'we should not promote "personal choice in all spheres of life", limiting personal choice instead to some spheres, and excluding it in others.' we is something governments do every day - what I was referring to was the use of personal choice as a political trick.

The example I referred to, Workchoices, was promoted as giving employees more choices - nothing wrong with that in principle. For those toward the bottom of the ladder, however, it meant in reality that all the choices were placed in the employer's hands and employees had to like it or lump it.

First things first - gnothi seauton

How should I live?

That question has never entered the mind of this albatross; we know how to live. Life and living comes naturally; it is spontaneous and never ends - or at least we think so for death never enters our mind, and why should it. Fortunately our religion is life itself; as such religious ideology and personal  interests are never in conflict. We just live - simply.

But for those of the human species this question could and probably does create conflict. Conflict with oneself, one's religion and personal values, for none of us are morally consistent.

The Catholic may sincerely believe in the Catholic way of life; yet quite happily take contraceptives. There are many examples I could raise but the following is an example of someone who when confronted with reality found that the way they chose to live was simply an idea, an idea he expected others to live by as well.

Some years ago in NSW we had a pollie by the name of Jim Cameron. Jim was a religious man, so much so he believed it was against God's law for people to have organ transplants:

Mr Cameron had been the only member of the Legislative Assembly to vote against the establishment of the organ transplants program, and he was the first one to use it. Faced with imminent death, with his youngest son still only eight years of age, he readily abandoned his earlier reservations and submitted to the scalpel of the late Dr Victor Chang to become Australia's forty-third and oldest heart transplant recipient at the age of 55. At that point he was told that he might live for another five years but he certainly lived a lot longer than that.

Jim Cameron had to come to terms with his idea of living and reality. Reality won as it usually does. Jim Cameron was quite prepared to sacrifice others (for his religious ideology) but when he was tested personally he abandoned his ideology for life. Time and events exposed Jim as a hypocrite. As many religious ideologists are.

Jim Cameron's dogma robbed him of empathy (for others unknown). It probably took Jim 55 years to find that empathy - for I would argue his opposition to organ transplants (for others) was replaced by his overriding desire to survive and that is a reality we all share - a lesson he was only ever going to learn until faced with his own mortality.

We read in the news about stem cell research and the issues involved. Some don't want it no matter what. I wonder how many Jim Camerons we would find amongst them?

Maybe, before we ask ourselves "how should I live?" we should be asking ourselves "who am I?" As the saying goes: "Know thyself" (gnothi seauton).

Until you know who you really are (not the person you think you are) then how can you know how you should live?

I sincerely believe that if we can answer (honestly) the first question: who am I?, then the answers to the second question: how should I live? will be an automatic and thoughtless continuation of the first.

It would appear Veronica's experience in that 5 star hotel taught her more about who she really was, rather than how she should be living.

Thank you kindly Veronica for your contribution.  Cheers JO

PS. These above questions apply equally to countries and nations, but we will never answer them honestly - too much patriotic bullshit and too little honesty.

value, meaning and hard yakka

"How I should live?" must involve value and meaning. Once you identify that which has value and meaning, you have to decide how far you should go in upholding or defence thereof.

You have to decide what is negotiable and what is not.

If something is non-negotiable then you follow the example of Socrates at the mild end, or Christ's even starker example.

We are then in a realm where few of us want to remain - a realm of huge gambles for nothing better than a probable fool's sticky end, or just a faint possibility of that quality of immortality that is so rare that only the few will ever have the audacity to seek after or endure for it, involving the last great frontier, conquest of death itself in some form or another.

In the end an ordinary person like this writer is caught in that uncomfortable interstice called deference of satisfaction; between hedonism and lip service to the ideal that makes all else mere ephemeral floss.

In part it's a genetic thing?

As a gregarious species, we do have an "altruism gene" that enables us to perform significant acts on behalf of our fellows in the group - we evolved on that principle. From this point the species could invoke metaphysics and a conception of what reality is and how to respond, given the natural internal fight between self preservation and altruism. Hegel felt this would all work out in due course, but post modernism challenges teleology and the old scepticism is sharpened.

Too much is contingent for any of us to finally know, this side of the grave - and later may be too late, if we heed the warnings of religious fundamentalism, or on the other hand are too trapped in piety and otherworldliness to enjoy the moment and what it can offer.

Digressing, I note Alain de Bouton is mentioned. Just enjoying his Consolations of Philosophy - just reading the bit about Epicurus - along with an old Penguin copy of Plato's Apology, given me by a friend who took pity on me and had me round for Xmass day with him and his family. I had been previously been doomed to spending Xmass alone, given the no kids and loss of other family thru natural attrition.

If you can't be a Christ or Niemoller, an act of kindness still can be a rewarding experience, even tho it sometimes costs an effort. Perhaps there is a spiritual economy of sorts where nothing of satisfaction can occur without the effort of a bit of selflessness and its true that I, too have experienced the satisfaction of overcoming selfishness and doing something a bit kindly for someone else. So we get a taste of honey, which is probably as much as we deserve, but if that's the case, it's usually because we made that effort and then experienced the gift that gives, also.

I personally hope people like the ones up in the tops of the Tassie rainforest trying to protect it get real satisfaction in the end, too. The sense of accomplishment that may come if they can save something worthwhile, if not, at least the clearer conscience that comes of having tried.

double meanings

How should I live, I think the question has passed it's use by date in one respect. Humanity should have asked itself that question 30 years ago, now the question is, how can I reasonably survive the changes which are now upon us. I fully understand the ideological human is in complete denial no matter what they try to say, the evidence of that is their life styles. No matter how they justify it, or make out they are aware the situation, how they live is all the evidence you need.

Maybe I have the wrong meaning on what you are saying, as your personal example is a sociological, how should I live. I decided many years ago that I would live as close to harmony with nature as I can, without being radical or primitive. It's always interesting to see how the elite ideologists seem to think they have knowledge of life, whilst in reality knowledge is what they lack.

In my many years as a musician and hospitality operator, I had the opportunity to walk in the upper echelons of society. However I always saw the folly of their elitism and how they saw living. To me, I would rather stay in a local caravan park than in the best accommodation, except when playing. Food wise, supposed high class food is complete rubbish, you get a small proportions of a common food dressed up in a load of rubbish, which costs you a fortune. A small boutique restaurant, or pub which will cater for your needs at a reasonable price and with much better company and outcomes than A la carte or hob nob.

How should I live, humbly, responsibly and enjoyably adventurous.

How should I live?

Could the crises of food, fuel and finance that we experienced in 2008 simply be three canaries in the coalmine? What if these are just the early-warning signals that our current economic system is not sustainable at a much deeper level?...................

Last year gave us the stern warning that current trends cannot be continued. We must read these warnings.

Can 2009 be the year when we find innovative new collaborations to help shape the post-crisis world? We must, as returning to "normal" is not an option.

Dominic Waughray is head of environmental initiatives at the World Economic Forum.

Veronica, how should I live? A great question that we should all be asking of ourselves.

Consumerism has become a cult. Shopping has become a drug, and many in our community are addicted. Our economy is slowing down and our leaders are giving us cash to spend. It seems the world economy depends on continued spending. Everyone needs twenty or thirty pairs of shoes, forget the two car family, most have three or four.The message is keep spending, it is the honorable thing to do. We use even use food crops to fuel our cars.

In the meanwhile, the other half - billions go without. Children scavenge for food in rubbish tips, many do not have adequate clean water.Our planet can no longer keep up with our demands.

It is time we all stopped and thought about everything we buy. Do we need it? What will it do to my carbon footprint? Will others go without so that I can have a five minute rush?

Yes how should I live? 

Time to ask the question before it is too late.

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