What is the meaning of life? I mean if we were to all die later, if not sooner, then what exactly is it that gives our life meaning—or what’s the purpose, the point or the very essence of living that makes life worth living?
I can’t remember when exactly but after experiencing a few profound moments last year, I became a lot more introspective than I already was. I started reflecting on what I could have done better each and every day, and it eventually led me to ask myself, “What is the meaning of life? What gives life meaning?” Coupled with the fact that it was also around this time when I began questioning the concept of happiness, I unintendedly end up questioning about the very thing we are all seemingly good at doing—being alive. But what does it mean to be alive?
Coincidentally, I was also reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, in which an interesting lot was written on the topic of happiness (how it can be hacked and manipulated through biochemistry and etc.) and religion (particularly about Buddhism), and Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic which is about Stoicism, a school of philosophy that “. . . asserts that virtue is happiness, and it is our perception of things that cause most of our trouble.”
Stoicism teaches us that, or those who seek the wisdom of the Stoics, happiness ultimately lies in our perception, and “the single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t.” In other words, by knowing that there are a lot we don’t have control over but seem to, and then there are just the few that we do, is all that matters—all we have is our own mind, our reasoned choices, our willed actions.
By accepting the things you can’t change, and only changing the things you can, “we will not only be happier, we will have a distinct advantage over other people who fail to realise they are fighting an unwinnable battle.”
In short, most of the things I once stood for, and the brittle things society insists are worthwhile, crumbled. As you can tell from before (if you had read my posts), I’ve already abhorred how the media and society continuously propagated the idea that you need to be rich to be happy (that it is better to cry in a Lambo than a Toyota)—and to be successful, the number of zeros in your bank account matters. Isn’t life more than just material possessions? Isn’t happiness about living a purposeful & fulfilling life?
Everything in life has to be balanced, and in this case what needs to be is ambition. One must be ambitious just enough to have the drive to improve, progress and develop as a person; yet, one must also rein in his ambition just enough to be humble, satisfied and contented.
Turning philosophical recently, I decided to ask—or maybe, interrogate—people around me on the meaning of life, and their purpose of living. But as much as I make myself sound like I know for sure, I don’t. I trust that nobody knows for sure the meaning of life, but for people who think they do, it’s because they gave themselves their meaning of life. So it’s relative then, yes?
“Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”
If you hadn’t already known, the life expectancy of men is 80 years and women, 86 years. Even then, from 70 years old onwards, when you’re almost always depleted of energy, won’t it feel more like a chore living? So assuming that 70 is the age when one starts to feel old and weary, how many more years of that ebullient vim and vigour have you got till then—provided nothing happens to you in the meantime? Are you not questioning still, about how you’re spending your time here? About your chosen vehicle of death? About your unavoidable choice of poison?
I believe Mark Manson puts it most appropriately, “… our death is a work-in-progress over the course of our lives … the better question isn’t when you’re going to die. It’s what are you choosing as your vehicle to get there? If everything you do each day brings you closer to death in its own unique and subtle way, then what are you choosing to let kill you?”
Further reading: Find what you love and let it kill you, by Mark Manson.
I felt the chosen metaphor ‘vehicle’ both aptly and accurately describes our impending demise—that we are slowly but surely inching forward towards our destination: Death. However much you like to avoid thinking about death, it is coming; however much you think you have to live, it will end. Our subconscious judgement of time is almost always flawed and our estimation of our lifespan is horribly optimistic and certainly off-the-charts.
Have you realised that we always seem to ask about life, but what about death? It’s clear to me what we are always doing is being selectively optimistic on this topic of life and death—I’m fairly certain you haven’t heard or read anyone saying, “What is the meaning or purpose of death?” It seems we are always subconsciously avoiding the topic of mortality, the brevity of human life, and the fact that our life is about to end. We are always petrified by the thought of death—what does it entail? What happens after? But I transgress. I think it is not just wise but also realistic to get straight to the point and talk about the controversial topic of death openly and transparently.
Only when we come to terms with the mortality of humans, will we find gratitude and appreciation for the gift called Life. Only then, will we truly feel content with what we have and spare no effort to carpe diem, to seize the day; to live desperately, love deeply, laugh crazily and dare greatly! The fact of death is unsettling, yet it is the only way to live.
This isn’t pessimistic, really, but rather, realistic and pragmatic. In other words, be realistically optimistic.
Further reading: Stockdale Paradox
“Life is like a book. Some chapters sad, some happy, and some exciting. But if you never turn the page, you will never know what the next chapter holds.” This analogy describes life perfectly. Just imagine you’re given a blank book in which you’re free to write a story however you deem fit—what will you fill the pages with? The only term given is that you have to finish using all the pages—how will you finish it? Will the story you masterfully crafted be filled just with sadness and sorrow, or will it just be filled with happiness and joy? Or will it be filled with both?
Do you realise that if you had actually written the entirety of the book with a seemingly linear plot—no climax nor any twist along the way—and you tried to sell it, nobody will buy it? Not even yourself. The fact is it will not be a good book. So then, what do you think constitutes a great book, a book that might enthral the very soul of the reader?
Death is but the metaphoric ending of the book. Your book. But do know that a book can have life-altering effects on the readers even after the author passes on. A well-constructed book isn’t dependent on how glamorous the contents are nor is it about the aesthetics of the book; it is whether it can capture the soul of the reader and effect a radical change in one; it is whether it can inspire one to aspire greater, to achieve better, to reach higher. So the question is: What kind of book do you wish to write and leave behind after you’re gone?
Death simply provides context to life; without death, mortality and our eventuality, life will be regarded as an entitlement than a privilege. Since there isn’t an end, what’s there to appreciate, right?
Similar to hardships, if one doesn’t learn or go through them, one will find themselves unable to truly comprehend how blessed they are; without death, one will no doubt take life for granted—but the fact is, we already know the existence of the Grim Reaper, yet we still choose to be ignorant of that fact. It seems not until we are truly reminded of that fact, untimely or not, will we ever cherish life as we should; not until we face the Reaper, will we ever be afraid of his scythe.
“If I were a writer of books, I would compile a register, with a comment, of the various deaths of men: he who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live.”
—Michel de Montaigne
P.S. Yes I do agree that the purpose of our lives is relative to oneself but at the very core, isn’t what we seek the same?—fulfilment of purpose and happiness; not the fulfilment of desires and greed.