Where A Life Worth Living Comes From
How do we sell the most stuff?
How can you date a hotter person?
Will you make ten percent more next year?
How do we optimize the profit margin?
What kind of product, personality, position…does everyone want most…right now?
Are we really alone?
Who or what made us?
What’s the universe made of?
What is life, anyways?
What is consciousness?
How does the mind work?
How should we live?
These are two very different lists of questions. And here’s what’s truly remarkable about today; this era, age, epoch, call it whatever you like…in short, this time in intellectual history.
We’ve made remarkable—stunning—progress on the stuff on the first list. When it comes to selling each other totally pointless shit…made by armies of half-brain-dead people…stuck in infinite loops of meetings…lorded over by zombie robot overlords…trading paper for monopoly money…we’re Masters of the Art…to a degree that no civilization in human history ever even dreamt of. Look. Take a list of jargon…Big Data, The Cloud, Leverage, “Sharing Economy”, etc…the nonsense words will surely be different tomorrow…but the point of them won’t. Their point will still be all the stuff above. That’s what we devote our time…energy…ideas…lives to. The first list. Call it the List of Trivial Conceits. We’ve become it’s Masters and it’s Lords.
Here’s my tiny little problem with that wondrous and noble accomplishment. It seems that the price has been this: we’ve made almost no progress at all on the stuff on the second list. The List of Truly Great Questions.
It’s true. We’ve colored in the lines here and there; and connected the dots. We’ve named the elements, and distinguished the forces; we’ve discovered electricity in the brain; and hidden depths in the mind. And yet. The Greeks could have told you the universe was made of tiny particles called atoms, held and spun by mysterious forces. The Buddha could have told you that the mind was a vast, intricate pattern recognition system—much of which was hidden from the observer. Plato could have told you that consciousness merely experienced shadows of reality. Aristotle could have told you that living well was living moderately, loving truly, and thinking deeply.
Let’s be honest. Most of the time, most of us are busy…polishing the font in the slide in the presentation in the meeting in the office in the building where we toil endlessly, wearily, day after day after groundhog day…on the stuff on the first list. We’re obsessive fans of triviality. Hey! What did you do over break? Me? I binge-watched the Kardashian, Season 174,391,052! What did you do? I played World of Laser Aliens until my eyes fell out! High five me!! Partyyy!!!
But devotees of triviality isn’t all we are. We’re also ardent practitioners of it. Hey, what are you going to devote your life to? Me? I’m going to be a plastic surgeon…maybe I’ll invent a whole new kind of boob job!! Me? I’m going to be an investment banker…maybe I’ll do a billion dollar deal. Me? My startup’s going to…change the world!! How? Check it my Mega Dream, dudes: surge pricing…for iDiapers!! Woww!! Amazing!! Jesus Christ!! You’re gonna be a billionaire!!
It’s no wonder, then. That we’re starved for meaning. That we’re parched for purpose. That we’re hollow with envy, greed, jealousy, despair. That we binge and purge on endless pleasure, but we still feel malnourished. That we consume ravenously, but we never feel satisfied. That the lives we want, rich with a sense of meaning, significance, importance, urgency, seem always, no matter how much we buy, have, own, gain, acquire…to slip maddeningly through our fingers.
We act like we’re at the Party at the End of the World. No. The world isn’t ending. Not in the sense of an impending apocalypse. Don’t worry. I’m pretty sure an asteroid isn’t going to blast us all into smithereens anytime soon.
What I mean is that we’ve come to behave like we’re at the Party at the End of the World. What would you do at such a party? Well…you’d go a little nuts, right? You’d hook up…get wasted…totally hammered…with abandon…without a thought about tomorrow. Because, of course, there wouldn’t be one. You’d look around and desperately wonder…”hey…who’s the prettiest person I can hook up with? What’s the hardest drug I can take? Can I get five seconds in a supercar before I die?”. And so you probably wouldn’t stop and ask yourself…questions that mattered.
And that’s a little bit like the way of life we succumb to. What do we really ask ourselves? What kind of “lifestyles” we want. What “brands” we’ll choose. Which “rewards” we desire. How “hot” people we’ll never love are. Surface and volume, not depth and weight; gloss and polish, not texture and significance. And here is what we don’t ask. We don’t ask the Truly Great Questions often enough; frequently enough; hard enough; or intently enough. To what? To imbue our lives with meaning. Purpose. Happiness. Passion.
All those. They are great mysteries at the heart of being. Few of us will ever truly experience more than a few moments of them, at their incandescent fullest. And yet. Each and every one of us must glimpse them. If we are to feel our lives have been worth living. For they are what set our hearts alight, and our spirits ablaze.
You won’t find those mysteries in World of Laser Aliens. You won’t find them in all the finest assembled butts of KardashianWorld. Nope, you won’t find them in a glittering title, a corner office, and a bulging bonus, either. All you’ll truly find in any of those is…nothing. Wasted time. Wasted ideas. Wasted chances. Wasted life.
If you are to know those mysteries, you must ask the questions that matter. You must never, not for a moment, settle for what this age haughtily pronounces the summit of human existence…soothing triviality…comfortable mediocrity…manufactured pleasure…synthetic rewards. Because when you do, what are you? They will have turned you into an equation to be solved…a program to be executed…a mechanism to be wound…a lever to be pressed.
Here is what you must learn to do. You must dream, wonder, imagine, hope, rebel, defy, create, build, suffer, despair, forgive, sacrifice, love. Fuck the Party at the End of the World. When they offer you the prize, you must laugh…and walk away, empty-handed, into the desert. When they hand you the reins, you must set the horses free. When they dangle the sword over your head, you must cut the thread.
Otherwise, you will never be free. And all freedom really is is this. The chance to love. There is no act of love greater in any world that will ever be than this. Asking the Truly Great Questions. For it is only in them, and through them, that we are taught. In each of us, there is a needing, clinging, insignificant self, desperate, hungry, afraid. But our lives do not truly begin until those selves have the improbable courage to ask: what else might be?