When we think of the forces that shape us, we often look back in time. We look at the events of our youth, the influence of our colleagues and the way we have been treated by our family. But while our past, or at least our conception of it, influences our sense of identity, it is also true that an event in our future and our choice of how to deal with it also shapes who we are and who we will become.
“. . .the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity - activity designed in large part to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by somehow denying that it is man's final destiny. ”- Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
In most cases, it is our society that provides the mechanisms to help us face our death. But not all societies offer adequate solutions to our existential dilemma, some in fact promote ways of life that are more likely to end in regret than in the feeling of a well-lived life.
For much of history, myths were the tools that humans used to ward off fear of death. Some myths achieve this with the promise of a better future. If we can only live in the manner prescribed by the myth, then, eventually, a turning point will be reached in which our suffering will be a thing of the past and a happy existence will fill the horizons of our future.
The most famous myth of its kind, or what is called the arrival myth, is the Christian myth. Christian dogma teaches us that our earthly suffering, and even our death, are not meaningless events in a meaningless universe, but the necessary steps to reach heaven.
The rise of science, however, and the skepticism it has provoked, have made belief in the afterlife less sustainable. But God's death destroyed only one manifestation of the arrival myth. In place of the Christian myth, a new myth has emerged in the West and also promises a better future. This new secular version of the arrival myth is built around the idea that our suffering is not so much linked to our mortal nature, but rather a product of what we lack.
If we can just find a job with a good pay, move to a big house, find the perfect partner and, at the same time, bathe in the glow of admiration others, then we will experience a turning point in this life. Our problems will wither and our money and social status will make a life free strife and strife.
Ironically, by replacing belief in a transcendental sky with belief in terrain, the modern arrival myth has not become any less illusory. For in our clearest moments, we all know that much of what afflicts us cannot be cured by simple additions to our wealth or social status. To make matters worse, the modern arrival myth does little to help us deal with the fact that one day, we too will be sealed in a box and thrown into a hole.
On the one hand, we may be one of the few who climb the ladder of social success to great heights, but if it came at the cost of years or decades spent in a job we fear, and to the exclusion of activities that are more intrinsically rewarding, then it will be hard not to feel that we are wasting our lives in vain pursuits. On the other hand, if we strive to achieve the wealth and status that our society considers necessary to enjoy life, it will be difficult not to think of ourselves as failure and to be consumed by frustration and resentment. Success or failure, the modern arrival myth does little to assert our existence in the face of our ever closer death.
Fortunately, clinging to the illusion that a better future awaits you, whether in this life or the next, is not the only way to deal with our existential dilemma. An alternative approach is to learn to live more fully now, as, as Leonardo da Vinci said:
"Just as a well-filled day brings a blessed sleep, a well-spent life brings a blessed death." - Leonardo da Vinci
But what is a well-spent life? Da Vinci's motto was "relentless rigor" and this gives us a clue as to the meaning of his statement. A well-spent life, according to da Vinci, is not one in which we spend our days fighting for wealth or fame, nor all of our free time is spent jumping one irrational pleasure to the next. A well-used life is one in which we choose intrinsically rewarding projects and constantly invest the time necessary to carry them out. Looking at da Vinci's life reveals that this is how he lived. painting his masterpieces, to trying to invent the first flying machine, to his incredible work on human anatomy, Da Vinci's life was full of projects.
Most of us, however, are not lucky enough to have patr wealthy funders funding our creative efforts, but as long as we have some free time, we can mimic da Vinci's life to some extent. A small amount of time devoted daily to a creative search, mastery of a skill or some other project, over time will accumulate into impressive results and open up unforeseen possibilities.
The greater the maturation of our skills, the more likely we will be able to discover ways to integrate our passions into our careers. But even if we don't make money our projects, and even if no soul recognizes our efforts, we will still benefit this active way of life for several reasons.
First, living a busy life is the best way to neutralize one of the root causes of human suffering, namely the feeling of stagnation. Stagnation plays tricks on the mind, makes us question the meaning of our existence and provides a foretaste of what awaits us. To combat these feelings, we need to change. We need the becoming that demarcates the living the dead and the well-used life is a vehicle to move in that direction. The more we stay in that lifestyle, the more we will learn than we are capable of and the less we will be haunted by the specter of a wasted life.
The second reason why a well-used life is beneficial, even if it does not introduce any external reward, is because this way of life allows access to the ideal state of consciousness known as flow and thus gives due consideration to the highly advised wisdom of that we must live more for the moment.
A flow state is not accessible on command, but instead spontaneously arises when we are fully engaged in activities that require us to make the most of our skills. When reached, the state of flux alters our perception of time, makes our sense of identity seem to disappear, and mere participation in everything we are doing becomes the reward in itself. Unlike sensual pleasures, which have diminishing returns, the more flow we induce in our life, the better.
Although a well-employed life is a good life, regardless of producing external rewards, it is nevertheless the best approach to achieve the ideal situation, in which we can sustain ourselves financially through activities that we find intrinsically rewarding.
Many people dream of such a life, but few achieve it for the simple reason that they are never very good at what they do. Dedicating consistent time to the search for intrinsically rewarding projects, however, will force us to cultivate character traits such as discipline, tenacity and courage, while strengthening the very important capacity for prolonged focus. With these tools in our arsenal we will put ourselves on the path to achieve the excellence necessary to make this dream come true.
If external success comes our way, however, we must not allow it to lead us astray the path of a well-used life. For sometimes external success, especially if it comes too quickly, can be more of a curse than a blessing. The comforts and pleasures that money and fame offer can lead us astray and lead us to a worse lifestyle than the previous one. Playwright Tennessee Williams discovered this after he shot obscurity to fame:
“The kind of life I had before this popular success” he wrote “was one that required resistance, a life of scratches and scrapes, but it was a good life because it was the type of life for which the human organism is created. I was not aware of how much vital energy I had invested in this fight until the fight was removed. This was security, finally. I sat down and looked around and suddenly I was very depressed. ”- Tennessee Williams
The struggle for the free life that so many of us hope for is not, as Williams suggests, a life for which the human organism is suitable and this is just another blow to the modern myth of arrival. We are a restless creature and our restlessness is linked to our mortal nature and cannot be tamed by external success. Our restlessness can only be tamed through the continuous effort of effort for purposes that we consider worthy. And that is why the life well used, is the good life and is the kind of life worthy of a blessed death:
"We measure ourselves by many standards," wrote William James. “Our strength and our intelligence, our wealth and even our good fortune are things that warm our hearts and make us feel up to life. But deeper than all these things, and able to do without them, is a sense of the amount of effort we can expend. . . One who can do nothing is just a shadow; one who can do a lot is a hero. ”- William James, The Principles of Psychology