Maya Angelou’s Secret to Living Your Best Life

Humans are proud of ratio­nal­i­ty, maybe to a fault. It can come at a sig­nif­i­cant cost: the ten­den­cy to over­com­pli­cate the sim­plest of tasks, not the least being the task of life itself. Trea­tise after trea­tise, dis­course after dis­course, book after book, lec­ture after lec­ture appears over the cen­turies, promis­ing to show us how to live the good life. We strug­gle, amidst the hun­dreds of oth­er oper­a­tions we must per­form at any giv­en time, to remem­ber com­plex eth­i­cal sys­tems in the moment, to incor­po­rate new pos­tures and rou­tines.

Per­haps this is why we have mys­tics and poets, to cut through the tan­gles of log­i­cal thought, to remind us of the unchang­ing essen­tials: Rumi and Rilke, William Blake, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, and Maya Angelou, who daz­zled read­ers and audi­ences with advice both elo­quent and plain­spo­ken, tran­scen­dent and imma­nent­ly down-to-earth. Angelou’s impas­sioned, warm deliv­ery and hard-won wis­dom made her an excel­lent spokesper­son for some uni­ver­sal truths that get glossed over or explained away in the scram­ble to improve and enrich our­selves, such as the advice she gives on Oprah’s OWN net­work, above: “Just do right.”

We might recoil at the seem­ing naiveté: “who is right?,” “what is right?,” “how does any­one know what is right?,” “what if your right is my wrong?” etc. All rea­son­able ques­tions up for rea­son­able debate. But Angelou isn’t inter­est­ed here in phi­los­o­phy but in life. “Just do right” speaks to a deep­er part of us, the part we col­lo­qui­al­ly call a con­science, though maybe no such thing appears in an fMRI scan. “Just do right,” she says, and you pret­ty much know what that is. “You don’t real­ly have to ask any­body,” she says. “The truth is, right may not be expe­di­ent, it may not be prof­itable, but it will sat­is­fy your soul. It brings you the kind of pro­tec­tion that body­guards can’t give you.”

Com­pas­sion, a clean con­science, a good rep­u­ta­tion: this is the stuff of the good life, dis­tilled down to its essence, at the heart of Greek, Roman, African, Chi­nese, Indi­an, Native Amer­i­can, and every oth­er world phi­los­o­phy and reli­gion. We may find no more a suc­cinct uni­ver­sal encour­age­ment, and warn­ing, than in Angelou’s advice:

Try to live your life in a way that you will not regret years of use­less virtue and iner­tia and timid­i­ty…. You make your own choic­es… pick up the bat­tle and make it a bet­ter world, just where you are.

This wis­dom requires no high the­o­ry and is avail­able to every­one free of charge—find out how you can make things bet­ter in your com­mu­ni­ty, stop ago­niz­ing over pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and mon­ey, and “just do right” right where you are. If this sounds too easy or too hard, lis­ten to Angelou describe in brief what it takes in the clip above, and why “courage is the most impor­tant of the virtues.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Maya Angelou Reads Her Poem “On the Pulse of Morn­ing” (1993) 

Maya Angelou Tells Studs Terkel How She Learned to Count Cards & Hus­tle in a New Ani­mat­ed Video

What is the Good Life? Pla­to, Aris­to­tle, Niet­zsche, & Kant’s Ideas in 4 Ani­mat­ed Videos

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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