I don’t know if I’m feeling philosophical or depressed but over the past couple of years, I’ve thought a lot more about life and death. It’s hit home more than I was ready for.
One of our recent book club books had something in it that fits this topic perfectly. The author talked about life being like a diamond on its side. It starts out pretty narrow and limited. As you age, it blossoms as you’re exposed to and get involved in more and more. Then it narrows again as you age until it finally reaches the end.
Maybe kind of a sad way to look at things, but also very true and an effective way to illustrate how life tends to work. The beginning and end of life have many similarities.
When do we reach the peak? If it’s simply based on age, it might be age 40-45. But other things might affect the timing. Maybe your peak was when you retired. We spend so many years focused on kids and jobs and getting ahead, do we start that downhill slope at retirement? Or are we still climbing?
All this makes me wonder what “living” really means? And am I doing that? Where am I on the diamond?
What is Living?
Obviously, the definition of living is going to be different for each person. For some, it means trying new and exciting things, maybe skydiving. It means traveling all over the world. It can mean working hard and being responsible. Taking care of a family. Most probably don’t even think about it; they just get up every morning and do their thing.
It seems common to always be looking forward and thinking life will get better when X or Y happens. You know, when I get that new job I’ll be able to buy that new house or take that exciting trip. Or when I retire, I can finally do all the things I haven’t had time for. But that doesn’t always work. We need to do those things all along the way.
My dad would argue he’s not living. Sure, his heart is still pumping and his brain is still working. But he can’t do the things he loves anymore. Things have become tough enough for him that he doesn’t even want to do those things because it’s too much work. Consequently, he feels he has no purpose. Is that living?
That brings up a good point. Does “living” require having a purpose? And when I say “living”, do I really mean having a meaningful life?
Having a meaningful life is a choice
I don’t want to get into a meaning of life discussion, but I found this article, and in it are some quotes worth pointing out.
According to Landau, a philosophy professor at Haifa University in Israel and author of the 2017 book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, people are mistaken when they feel their lives are meaningless. The error is based on their failure to recognize what does matter, instead becoming overly focused on what they believe is missing from their existence.
I think this is my dad’s problem. He definitely focuses on what’s missing instead of what he has. He has friends and family who love him and spending time with them should be important to him. Obviously, I can’t tell him how to live his life, but I can learn from this and make sure I don’t follow this path.
Life is meaningful, they say, but its value is made by us in our minds, and subject to change over time. Landau argues that meaning is essentially a sense of worth which we may all derive in a different way—from relationships, creativity, accomplishment in a given field, or generosity, among other possibilities.
At any age, we should be able to find something that gives us a sense of worth. I think it’s also important to make sure we have defined what matters for us as individuals since so many people lose spouses along the way and shouldn’t have their worth defined solely by that relationship.
So, say you feel purposeless because you’re not as accomplished in your profession as you dreamed of being. You could theoretically derive meaning from other endeavors, like relationships, volunteer work, travel, or creative activities, to name just a few. It may also be that the things you already do really are meaningful, and that you’re not valuing them sufficiently because you’re focused on a single factor for value.
I think many people fall victim to this and it kind of goes back to the first quote where we focus on what’s missing instead of what we have. I can find purpose in my life every day just piddling around the house. OK, that’s not going to excite everyone but who cares? It’s my purpose and my worth and that’s what matters to me. And what other people choose to derive meaning from is only their business.
It’s up to each of us to determine what gets us up in the morning, even if it’s just looking forward to a sunshiny day. Only thinking about what we’re missing is never going to make us happy or give us a purpose.
So then, what is living?
For a life to be valuable, or meaningful, it needn’t be unique. Believing that specialness is tied to meaning is another mistake many people make, in Landau’s view. This misconception, he believes, “leads some people to unnecessarily see their lives as insufficiently meaningful and to miss ways of enhancing meaning in life.”
He notes too that things change all the time: We move, meet new people, have fresh experiences, encounter new ideas, and age. As we change, our values transform, and so does our sense of purpose, which we must continually work on.
So, if you don’t feel like you’re “living”, it’s your own problem!! As he notes, things change all the time and we have to adjust. Some people are much better at that than others,
How about you?
14 thoughts on “What is Living?”
So many of your posts resonate deeply with me. The last year of my Mom’s life were not good, she was not at peace and increasingly agitated, confused and weakened. She died last summer (at age 89) and I miss her every single day. But I know it’s for the best that she has moved on.
Like you, I have been thinking about death also, mostly about those, both young and old, who have passed on. I was startled to realize that one person had died in 2010, I did not realize how long it had been. I think of all the years I’ve had since then that she did not. It can be helpful to think about these matters, as you say, to consider what is meaningful in your own life.
Thanks for your thought provoking posts!
Thanks Cheryl. I don’t like thinking about death because I want to enjoy the years I have left without always worrying about dying. It’s just tough when it seems to be in your face all the time. Honestly, I don’t dwell on it. I mainly think about it when certain things trigger those kinds of thoughts.
The phrase that really hit me hard was “I can’t tell him how to live his life, but I can learn from this and make sure I don’t follow this path.” I feel the same about my mom. I can wish all I want that she would “take my advice”, but she is making her own choices… and I can see that those choices would not be right for me. And so, even now, I’m setting myself up for a different path.
I loved this post and all the quotes you used. I often feel purposeless becasue I struggle alot with the idea of purpose. This really made me think differently. Thanks.
I know I’m guilty of this but sometimes we just think too much!! Our purpose presents itself to us every day when we choose how to spend our time.
I truly hope we both learn from our parents. It’s so easy to say I won’t be like that now, but what will I be like when I’m in my dad’s situation? It scares me sometimes.
When my dad turned 80, he said that looking in the mirror each day was a bit of a shock because he wasn’t prepared to see an old man. I asked him how he mentally saw himself, and he repsonded “as a young boy.” I loved that at the time, but as I’ve gotten older it’s become relevant to me. Our world gets smaller and smaller as we age.
I can’t say I see a young girl when I look in the mirror, but I do know I still think like my younger self. I remember my dad saying, your mind says do one thing but your body won’t do it anymore. That’s the sad part. You’re right that our world gets smaller as we age. The same things just don’t appeal to us anymore.
This is a thought-provoking post. I think of Loretta Lynn when asked what she was doing in her later life, to which she replied – just trying to matter. The phrase – keep on keeping on – rings in my ears. Do what you can, while you can, for as long as you can. A purpose driven life appeals to me and my big picture goal is to look after myself and my home. That provides me with enough to do each day. I’ve certainly become aware of what I value and that contributes to my purpose and life goals.
I think it’s so important to have some type of goals, even if they’re very simple. There are some days when I almost hate to go to bed because I am excited about what I have planned for the next day. Too bad it sometimes keeps me up!!
What a great post! You cover a subject most of us in retirement think about on a regular basis. I’m guilty of focusing on things I’m missing out on. We are currently keeping 3 young grandchildren to help our daughter out. I tend to focus on loss of freedom of doing what I want to do. But, when I focus on the little things they do that bring joy to my life, I feel better. I also think about the man across the street who has no grandchildren and has voiced how he wished he did. So his “missing out” may be what blesses my life. As you said it is our own problem if we are not living.
I am very guilty of thinking about my loss of freedom right now, but you’re so right that I need to be thankful my dad is still around. Part of my purpose right now is taking care of what he needs.
I like to think of living in the image of a kite on it’s side (with the top pointing to the right.) I’m in my 60’s and feel like my life is still peaking. It keeps getting better.
Wow. This post is thought provoking.
Finding one’s individual value is often lacking when you’re part of a couple. When I divorced a man I had been married to for 30+ years, I was lost. My identity was defined as part of a couple for so long that I had no idea what a meaningful life was for me as an individual.
I also saw my dad go from a proud and social person who owned his home to a somewhat happy but less social man living in an assisted living facility to a person who, after my mom died, sat in a chair in a nursing home room barely big enough for a bed and a chair with his eyes closed re-living memories (he told me that’s all he had left).
As you say, life brings change and with change we must re-define what brings us joy and remind ourselves how wonderfully meaningful our lives are.
Your dad sounds a lot like mine. I understand his unhappiness but I hope my life will be different as I age. You just never know what life will throw at you so I could eat those words someday.
Good for you!! I hope your life continues to peak for years to come!! This can definitely be the best time of life.
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