"How should a person live?" is my essay question. Can anyone help me get started?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Always before beginning to write, the student should spend time reflecting upon ideas (brainstorming).  Doing so will involve any number of activities from recalling relevant ideas to reading, to walking alone [studies reveal that one activates the creative areas of the mind as one walks], or talking with others.

Certainly, in contemporary life, there are no shortage of examples of how NOT to live. Perhaps, then, reflecting upon the instructions of religious works such as the Bible [see link below], or recounts of the lives of historical and literary figures who have led exemplary lives may be helpful for generating positive ideas. Two such figures that come to mind are the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. 

  • Ralph Waldo Emerson

In his essay "Self-Reliance" [see link below for e-text], Emerson writes that people should trust themselves because 

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree...to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion....Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.

  • Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau was a man who, above all, followed his conscience. For instance, he spent a night in jail rather than pay what he perceived as an unjust tax because it supported issues opposed to his beliefs. He also spent time in the woods, away from society so that he could clear his mind and discover what really mattered. In Walden he writes, 

...I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Throughout his life, Thoreau sought to be genuine.

Of course, many of the words of Shakespeare are inspirational to thought. Certainly, the words of Polonius, ironical though they may be for him to have spoken them, are inspiring and sound advice.

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
(Hamlet 1.3.78-80)

Once the student has decided upon the direction of the essay after having drawn inspiration from various sources and from personal beliefs, the introduction can begin with a "motivator" such as a reflection or a quotation that is relevant to the rest of the essay. Then, the thesis statement will include a general statement of the student's approach to how a person should live with three opinions (which will later be supported with details and quotations and examples in the body of the essay).

______________________________________________________________

The key word in the suggestions above is honesty. When a person lives a life of integrity, he/she can be proud in later years and not regret having betrayed people or lost respect and even one's own self-respect ("lived deliberately"). There may be bitter prices and costly prices to retaining one's integrity, but "at the end of the day" one can still look in the mirror and see a whole, decent person and reflect upon a meaningful life that was truly genuine and not sacrificed to some false god such as material possessions or money or power.

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