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?