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Life is short, and for good reason – here’s how to make it more meaningful

In 1605 the great Spanish novelist, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, wrote, through the mouthpiece of Don Quixote of La Mancha, that it is

the part of a wise man to keep himself today for tomorrow, and not to venture all his eggs in one basket.

But just how wise is this? I argue not at all.

It is the height of folly “to keep oneself for tomorrow” if one desires a meaningful existence, and simply leads to an un-lived life, filled with nothing but unrealised possibilities and what-might-have-beens. A wise person should surely live a real life?

Yet, for secular society at least, we appear to have taken this quixotic wisdom very much to heart. It seemingly forms the basis of financial portfolio optimisation where it manifests as the dictum that one should “diversify one’s portfolio” and not risk too much in one specific investment. On the surface this might appear to be a good, rational way to live: treat life like an economic problem (where this approach obviously has merit in terms of investment returns) and, above all else, minimise losses. The less we choose, the less we risk. After all, commitment often involves leaving the other options behind. It is risk heavy.

In the psycho-therapeutic context (borrowing from Carl Gustav Jung’s theories), those that live as if time were unlimited, keeping all options open, are referred as Puer Aeterni: eternal children. It is precisely by grounding oneself in reality, committing to it, choosing some course of action, being decisive, and so on, that one grows up.

Puers live a merely provisional life, since it is essentially an exercise in reality avoidance. This state of being is no better than reading about tasting wine or hearing music, or watching someone else have an orgasm on a screen, and expecting that to be a sufficient proxy for experiencing such things in reality.

Jung was writing almost a century ago. Today, it is as though a peculiar force is driving us further and further from reality. With COVID-19 we found ourselves locked away, teaching and meeting over Zoom, which has persisted beyond the lockdowns. With the advent of “the Metaverse”, humanity faces the possibility of unplugging even more from the real world and from real life.

A man speaking.
Mark Zuckerberg spruiking the Metaverse. Eric Risberg/AP

Of course, technology can be a wonderful tool, and I’m not dismissing the utility of Zoom and virtual reality (which, of course, might allow a more immersive version of Zooming), but we must be constantly on guard against succumbing to attempts to undermine our ability and our existential need to make choices that matter.

A society of people unwilling to commit to action that will affect the world for which they are responsible is tantamount to a society of children, whatever their chronological age. Indeed, the psychoanalyst Dan Kiley once recast this puer complex in terms of J. M. Barrie’s archetypal character Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up, whose motto is

Stars are beautiful, but they may not take part in anything, they must just look on forever.

The puer might have “ecstasies innumerable” but find themselves, to quote Barrie again, “looking through the window at the one joy from which [they] must be for ever barred.” And so it is with those unable to commit to some specific future, person, job, etc. They cannot be said to properly live or to engage properly with the world and its inhabitants. They are already living in a kind of simulation.

A boy fairy.
Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Walt Disney Animation Studios

Jung called this state “the provisional life.” Likewise, much earlier, the stoic philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, in his book On the Shortness of Life, refers to a “tossing about” rather than a “journey,” which forges a path through the space of possibilities with intention, design, and often courage. Life is not merely existing. It is not just being there through the lapse of time.

Read more: What would Seneca say? Six Stoic tips for surviving lockdown

Commitment as a sacrifice

But perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so dismissive of the avoidance of commitment, as Kiley, Jung, and Seneca were. The world is indeed full of possibilities. But a world full of possibility is also full of uncertainty (the basis of the risk mentioned earlier). And from this uncertainty comes the anxiety of having to face the risking of decisions.

What is the ultimate source of this anxiety? I suspect it is the latent knowledge that each decisive action taken is simultaneously a kind of death; as much a destructive act as a creative or productive one, killing off alternatives to allow just a single one to live.

A commitment is thus a sacrificial offering of sorts, of the other possibilities – this is also a sacrifice to the possibility that is made actual, thereby magnifying its significance. The anxiety is the recognition that decisions can matter in a fundamental way, both for the decider and for the world around them.

Hence, the solution, assumed to be rational, is simply to not make any decisions and keep all options on the table. And, of course, since our space of possibilities is ever-shrinking as we age, we want to retain as many options as possible, viewing them as the very spring of life. But a life without limit can produce only a stagnant pond.

Such limits become most directly observed at a moment of crisis. There are times when we fully realise we stand at a fork in the road. That feeling is fear, because we know at such moments we are pruning away some possibilities in an irreversible way. Indeed, the very word “crisis” comes from the Greek word for deciding: krinein.

The fear is rational because it is a momentous thing. Often this comes at mid-life, of course, because we know that we are also at a turning point: at best, halfway to the end. At this point decisions seem to take on a greater magnitude precisely because our options are becoming more limited. Here, we find that death, like a beam of light, focuses as it narrows.

Ordinarily, we think of limitations (especially death, the ultimate limit) as things that disrupt our freedom precisely because they remove possibilities in this way. But, paradoxically, limits can be seen to give birth to freedom. And, furthermore, this freedom born of limitation is where a bounty of meaning lies for all of us.

Read more: Friday essay: on reckoning with the fact of one's death

Immortality is not a good idea

All of this clearly impacts the ongoing obsession with immortality. This is the biggest folly of all. Living forever, immortality, is not a good idea if you want a life of meaning.

While Seneca argued “it’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it,” I argue that life’s very shortness is, in fact, the primary source of its meaning. Life is short, and it is so for good reason.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger defended a similar view in his book Being and Time, which is undoubtedly a work of genius, but there’s a friendlier version of the idea in the TV Series The Good Place (where the “good place” is the eternal afterlife).

In the penultimate episode, the inhabitants are offered a way out of a bland eternity and into oblivion, many gladly accept the latter precisely because meaning evaporates without limitation.

Read more: Kantian comedy: the philosophy of The Good Place

Death is the most important limitation of all because this finite boundary is required to enable the choosing of possibilities. It makes only some actual, along with the discarding of virtual possibilities.

Death allows us to build meaning into our lives. It leads to the very opposite of virtual reality. Life, through our choices, becomes a kind of reality-construction project. Here lies the bounty.

Of course, many lives are too short in order to generate much or any meaning in this way, when taken too young, for example. There is not much to say by way of justification for this. I certainly would say that while a finite, short life is required for meaning, meaning also demands that life have a duration sufficient to at least allow for the growth of a person to a certain level where they are capable of making choices and forging a path in the world. However, a long life does not necessarily contain more meaning than a shorter one. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it, acknowledging that we don’t always get to choose how long we have, “[i]t is not length of life, but depth of life” that really matters.

So while we take away the godlike property of being unlimited when we leave the provisional behind us and commit by making a decision and acting, we open the door to another godlike ability: the creative and cosmic power of choice, of actualising some possibility from the many available.

While it doesn’t seem like it, death is our greatest gift in terms of meaningful existence since it is the very source of choice, of having to decide, precisely due to its focusing effect.

Decisive action is you being in control of what happens. It is you happening to the world, rather than it happening to you. This is real freedom.

Dean Rickles’ book Life is Short is published by Princeton University Press.

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