It Starts With the Basics: The Formula for the Best of Lives

March 9, 2021 Updated: March 9, 2021

F. Washington Jarvis (1939–2018) was an Episcopalian priest who for 30 years served as the headmaster of Boston’s Roxbury Latin School, the oldest school in continued existence in North America. Jarvis frequently delivered inspirational talks to the boys in his school, and 40 of these addresses were collected in “With Love and Prayers: A Headmaster Speaks to the Next Generation.”

In one of these, “The Spiritual Dimension,” Jarvis closes with these thoughts:

“I saw a snippet on public television in July about a summer camp that had these words written over its entrance—words that sum up my hopes and prayers for all of you, words that sum up everything I’ve been trying to say. The words are these: ‘God first, others second, myself last.’ That is the formula for the best of lives.”

God first, others second, myself last.

That seems a worthy and wise hierarchy of obligations, but we must ask ourselves two questions. First, do most Americans practice this formula? And if not, how might we ourselves revive this idea?

“The Golden Rule,” 1961, by Norman Rockwell.

Taking the Right Path

In the past 50 years, church membership in America has fallen dramatically. A growing number of people proclaim themselves atheists while a much larger number declare they are “spiritual but not religious,” as if to say, “Well, I believe something is out there, but that’s about all I know.” No sane person would put such a vague belief first in life.

But there is a way to make this formula work for all of us, whatever our views of religion. We can commit ourselves to a code of honor and integrity that acts as a compass in our daily lives, guiding us in our decision-making and our treatment of others. We might, for example, make the traditional virtues along with truth, goodness, and beauty—what some call the transcendentals—the North Star for all our judgments, thereby maintaining Jarvis’s prescription.

Some among us, perhaps most of us, sometimes fail to live up to such principles. The movie star who flies by private jet halfway around the world to a conference on climate change, the politician who promises voters to work for change, but then falls into lockstep with his colleagues after the election, the young woman who watches her college friend getting ripped up on social media for a misspoken word and is too frightened to defend her: our press reports all the time on such people.

Like them, we too may fail at times to honor our code, but if we possess such a guiding light, these are but missteps, and we can find our way once again to the right path.

Giving of Ourselves

Many of us routinely place others ahead of ourselves. We care for children or aging parents, we give up our seats in church to the pregnant woman standing by the wall, we donate some of our hard-earned cash to a charity, or spend an evening a week serving a meal in a homeless shelter.

But surely this part of Jarvis’s formula includes the Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—and here we often fail miserably. A plumber cheats a man whose water pipes have frozen, charging him far more than the usual rate. A teenage girl confides to a friend that she’s pregnant, and soon that friend is sharing that news with others. A father promises his son he’ll come to his next ball game, but once again reneges and plays golf with his boss.

These days, some of the worst of those who break the Golden Rule belong to the cancel culture mob, those who through social media viciously attack strangers for cultural misappropriation, for having the wrong political opinions, or for simply posting a thoughtless and innocent remark on Facebook. No Golden Rule in this ugly arena.

Putting others ahead of our wants and desires involves more than helping an elderly lady across the street or taking some herbal tea to a sick neighbor. It means treating family, friends, and strangers with the dignity and charity we ask for ourselves.

Me, Myself, and I

In our “age of the selfie,” putting ourselves last may seem a concept as antiquated as spats or movie newsreels. Many of our celebrities and public figures practically beg for admiration, hoisting up their accomplishments for all to celebrate or going in the opposite direction, seeking attention and sympathy by spotlighting their grievances.

C.S. Lewis’s “The Great Divorce” offers some thoughts that all those obsessed by the self might ponder: “Hell is a state of mind—ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of his own mind—is, in the end, Hell.” When we become totally focused on ourselves, on our triumphs, pains, and miseries, we build that dungeon stone by stone.

On the other hand, when we turn our gaze outward, when we give our time and attention to others, we can tear down the walls of that dungeon. By helping others, we help ourselves. Often I’ve found that focusing on another’s problems—a grandchild’s tears over a math lesson, a friend’s struggles with finances—diminishes my own difficulties and anxieties.

The Hierarchy of Harmony

Jarvis’s formula for the best life has a long history. Confucius, Plato, St. Paul, Thomas Aquinas: these thinkers and many more devoted themselves to finding the order of human obligations, desires, and loyalties that would bring practitioners peace and satisfaction, and many of them came to the same conclusion as Jarvis. When we abide by this hierarchy, we live harmonious lives. When that order breaks down, when we turn it on its head, we find ourselves in a mess of misplaced responsibilities and unintended consequences, often bringing grief and pain to others as well as to ourselves.

In his “Overture” to “12 Rules for Life,” Jordan Peterson writes, “If we each live properly, we will collectively flourish.”

In other words, right order equals right living. The equation is as simple and as complicated as that.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See to follow his blog.