Part One: The Reality Of Existence
The reality of life is absolutely brutal.
We humans mature quickly; in just two decades or so, we reach a physical pinnacle, often accompanied by a peak in our greatest skills. The best athletes, for example, usually peak in their early twenties, and hold on to a career for about another decade. Artists and businesspeople make themselves in their twenties and then spend the rest of their lives slowly fading away. There is something magical about the early twenties. It's a culmination of life's ambition and physical prowess and opportunity.
When those years are over, what we have to look forward to is the ugly fade. Age is humiliating. Our noses get bigger and knobbier, and that's about as emblematic of age in general as anything. Even if we wanted to age gracefully, our noses have other ideas. If we're men, our eyebrows turn into shrubberies and our ears and nostrils sprout. If we're women, all of our curves sag and fill up with fat tissue. We can recover a bit of our former grace with physical exercise and intelligent grooming habits, but we're on borrowed time. Nothing can out-pace the growth of our noses; nothing can out-run the human nose.
It's not merely that it happens, but that it happens four times longer than it took to grow into an attractive and capable body. The rise is fast, but the fall takes up the majority of our lives. What cruelty is this that nature has foisted upon us? How unkind that we must spend the overwhelming majority of our lives becoming ugly, sickly invalids. Youth isn't merely wasted on the young; it's wasted on everyone. It fades so quickly that it's almost as if it never existed in the first place.
Each of us knows what's coming, because we see it dozens of times over, among all the great people we ever knew, who happen to be older than we are. We watch our heroes and our friends transition from being bright, sharp-witted, attractive people to being doddering old curmugeons with particularities and strange demands, who drive slow and can't seem to find the right words anymore. They don't just fade, they decay. This is the fate that awaits us, too. We won't necessarily realize it as it happens, we'll just reach that point silently as the world spins on and the younger people stop caring that we ever had any ideas worth sharing. And then it will be their turn.
Some people think they can transcend this fate by embracing it. They let their hair turn grey and they endeavor to become the "cool" old lady or man. They're fooling themselves. No one cares, and no one remembers. Even the best people I ever knew were forgotten within a couple of decades of their passing. I still think about my grandfather daily, but my children never met him and will never spend any time thinking about him. Once my generation is gone, so, too, will his memory be. Embracing your old age might buy you some mental peace, but it won't stop the growth of your nose, and it won't change the fact that one day, on your death bed, you'll be grasping for a few final words that no one will ever repeat.
Honestly, I've never heard anyone repeat another person's last words. At the moment when we most wish to be remembered and to leave the world with something important to say, we say whatever is most deeply held within our hearts... and no one ever mentions it again.
It's really quite sad to think about the fleetingness and finality of life. No empire that you build or friendship that you make will ever outlast your memory. And your memory itself will expire a couple of decades after you do. Someone might write a book about you, but all the great books were written sixty years ago or more.
You can't change the world. You can't age gracefully. You can't recapture the magnificence of youth. Ultimately, your life is a short rise and a long fall, and that's all there is to it. The end.
Part Two: How To Live
So, given all of that, how does one make the most out of life?
What most people will suggest is to construct something; either something physical, like an empire, or something meaningful, like an everlasting friendship. Some will tell you that the purpose of life is to reach for the stars, while others will tell you that devoting yourself to the service of others is the highest moral undertaking. As I've already noted, however, you won't be remembered for either of those things, not really. You'll be gone, and so will everyone who ever knew you, and at that point, nothing you will have built will matter to anyone ever again.
Strange as it may seem to think about it, life is not really a source of happiness. Life, broadly construed, can only ever end badly. If you imagine that the end will represent the final chapter in a grand epic, I'm afraid you'll be greatly disappointed. You might look back on a life well-lived, but that will only be a fleeting moment of introspection in a tiny, insignificant story that no one else will ever tell; or remember.
Life, broadly construed, cannot be the source of your happiness. You must find that happiness in life more narrowly construed.
Yesterday, my wife was complaining to me about the lineup of cars she was stuck in as she was driving our daughter to school. When she complained to me, I told her in that in two decades she would give anything to go back to those days. She didn't believe me.
But then, the next day, stuck in a similar lineup, she felt her mind relax. Instead of becoming frustrated by the traffic, she allowed herself to enjoy the one-on-one time she had with our daughter. They talked, they laughed, they enjoyed each other's company, and neither of them wasted any time thinking about being stuck in traffic.
It was a small, insignificant moment in a small and insignificant life. Even so, it was far more satisfying than anything else she could have been doing at that moment. Sure, she could have told herself that she was sacrificing herself for the sake of her child's education and eventual entrance into a better life. But that would have been nonsense. The truth is that a better life was always just staring them both in the face. All my wife had to do was stop complaining and start enjoying her daughter's company.
I'm always surprised when I hear about married people who stop having sex. When you're married, you can have as much sex with your spouse as you both can stand. There is absolutely no rule against it. If you both have some free time and a little privacy, then you both have the ability to do something that a) brings you emotionally closer together, b) improves the quality of your relationship, c) is a lot of fun, d) feels really good, e) instantly improves your mental state... and so on.
The fact that married people aren't having sex constantly is testament to human beings' tendency to avoid happiness for absolutely no good reason at all.
It's not just sex, and it's not just traffic. Our whole lives are filled with moments that could either be extremely happy and satisfying, or they could be frustrating and miserable. Why choose miserable? Why not have sex with your spouse? Why not have a good time talking with your daughter when you're stuck in traffic?
Why not turn on your favorite song? Your stereo is right there, for god's sake. Why not read a good book or watch a good movie? Why not have a laugh? Why not play a game or start a nice conversation?
Why in the hell, when happiness is all around us, do we invest so much time in being miserable? Life is a long, slow funeral dirge. Why on Earth wouldn't we fill every spare moment with a reason to be happy, no matter how small and insignificant that reason might be? Share a kiss, pick a flower, tell a joke, look up at the clouds and appreciate their beauty. Whatever it is that steals you a moment of peace or satisfaction, take it. There is absolutely no reason to spend a moment feeling frustrated or unhappy when you can instantly improve your quality of life simply by taking a look at what's around you and using it to make yourself slightly happier.
No matter how you choose to live, you will only live this one life, and you will soon be forgotten. Wouldn't it be better to have enjoyed the time you spent here? Wouldn't it be better that you made yourself happy rather than sad?
Isn't that what life is all about?