Why People Live

This past week I learned that I have some incredible readers on this blog. No idea why you guys read this piece of shit. But I’m glad you do. Thanks.

As somewhat promised, here’s a followup post to my Why Do You Live? post on Monday, featuring some of the fantastic responses from incredible readers.

First up, the fucking awesome Michelle Lara Lin, who I’m actually amazed I haven’t met yet. How does everyone not know this ridiculously cool person already?

I can’t admit I’m not biased in favoring this response because she’s an absurdist too and runs a blog called The Stranger, because I am. But notwithstanding, she wrote a amazing post below interspersed with amazing pieces of artwork, so. Read it.

Hello Ben,

I’ve always loved reading your blog entries, but this Absurdist one was a delightful surprise. Camus is my favorite author. He turned my life around and gave me the strength to live and do all the things that I’d be afraid to do otherwise. So I am really excited to send you this email.

I wrote a long blog post called I’m scared of dying a long time ago. It was about overcoming the fear of death. It’s a bit long, and I know you must be very busy. So in case you don’t have the time to read it, I’ve prepared the TL;DR version:

Start:

I would think about death. I would be frightened over the thought that one day, my life would end… Everything that I worked for, everything that I built up would be gone. My life would be consummated without me, before my eyes, and ultimately, there would be nothing. Everything would disintegrate into this nothingness. That empty feeling, that nothingness, haunted me with sleepless nights and swollen eye bags. My parents were religious, and they offered it to me as a solace. My heart ached for a God. But I could never believe.

End:

I love life. And I do not believe that my life serves a purpose. I do not believe that my life has any meaning.

What do I live for? Why do I live?

I suppose I live to create and to fix things.

Creating: Nietzsche once wrote that we have art in order not to die of life. I think that is very true. Because in those moments when life becomes unbearable, you channel everything that is inconceivable, you channel all that emotional excess into art. I don’t just mean conventional art (painting, sculptures… etc)– but even startups count too. Quotesome is the current “work of art” that I’m building.

Fixing things: I also see all these flaws with the world and I feel extremely itchy. I want to fix things. I can’t stand that there are so many bad quote websites on the internet. I am outraged that women are still a flagrant minority in the tech world. I’m sick of double standards. I’m disappointed stigma surrounding mental illness. I can’t sit around and accept things for the way they are. I am never content with the status quo. I really want to change the world.

Gaze your eyes upon Quotle, the adorable Quotesome Turtle. (I suspect that secretly everything Michelle said is bullshit and the real reason she gets up every day is to feed and cuddle with Quotle.)

LOOK AT IT.

Then go check out Quotesome, cause it’s super cool.

Below is another fantastic response by Phillip Herndon, who wrote his own blog post in reply:

Hi Ben,

Your post on Svbtle the other day got me thinking. So much that I wrote something of my own

It’s not a direct answer, but I play around with the question a bit. (It’s a tough question!)

I definitely recommend checking out Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s stark, but optimistic in a way existentialism usually isn’t.

Cheers,

Phill

I’ve been meaning to read MSM forever - this convinced me to up the priority on that. We pushed a bit back and forth here, and this is was my response:

I suppose the deeper question for me is always - why? In the absence of objective meaning, what justifies any subjective meaning we choose to have at any moment? For instance - why choose to be a teacher, or a student? It’s generally a recursive question for me - whatever my answer is, I’ll ask ‘why’ to that again. Ultimately, it seems we need to take something on its own merit as an axiom, and I’ve never discovered a satisfying enough axiom to base the meaning of my life on at any given moment.

And this was his great response to that:

Gotta push back on your why questions, though. If we start by agreeing that the universe is inherently absurd, it’s kinda odd to hold ourselves to a different standard. Looking for moral axioms in an absurd world is a tough position to put yourself in!

You can look and see that generally people have a drive for meaning, as we have other drives. There’s also a good argument, I think, that that meaning is not, cannot be, objective.

Asking why we choose one meaning rather than another is fruitless, though. As you point you we can always just ask why again. And any justification we come up with is likely to be post hoc.

We can go pretty deep with the whys, because humans are really good at dreaming up justifications and reasoning, but I don’t think that means that all these things led to a decision. There’s a lot of good work on social intuitionism, particularly some of Jon Haidt’s stuff, that explores this a bit better than i could

I think that Frankl and Haidt might agree (going out on a limb here) that when picking a meaning in the moment the important thing is that it fits with your personal narrative and it satisfies your drive for meaning, not that it’s an airtight axiom. After all, it can change as your experience with the world changes.

For some reason, that last bit about picking a meaning in the moment and having it fit with our personal narrative struck me particularly strongly, and actually persuaded me over to his line of thought and now I’m going to try to find that meaning that fits with my personal narrative right now. Thanks, man!

And then we’ve got a somewhat lighter answer (minus the immortality/making worlds bit) from my epic friend Jon Davis:

Yo Ben, responding to your blog post.

Most of my life goals, essentially the end game is to explore/create endlessly and get infinite enjoyment out of life.

Pre-living forever goals:

  • Find 5-6 close friends with similar goals and tackle life (or quick attack, aw yeah pokemon reference)
  • Learn 5-6 languages or effectively learn them all through technology.
  • Learn everyday
  • Make the world actively better is very significant ways.

and the big one, oh boy.

Live forever.

After living forever goals:

  • Master various strategy games, hopefully they involve multi-player VC worlds.
  • Create my own landscape, whether it be planets or virtual reality.
  • Adjust to do whatever you want, since you know, you live forever.

I guess the snippit would be to explore/create without end in every sense of those words. Or maybe just live forever and figure out the rest later :P

K, peace!

I love the bit about finding 5-6 close friends and tackling life together. Recalled to mind my reading about making our own tribes in Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness. Major kudos for that, and I’d love to make my own tribe.

Incidentally, Jon’s looking for sweet peeps for his own hunting party of people, so if any of you guys seem to mesh unusually well with him, you should totally ping him up. He’s a top 50 tournament poker player and pretty much kicks ass at life.

And to end since this is way long, here’s an answer from France:

Hi Ben,

I have read your post with great interest..

I thought I could have something to share.

When I was about 16 years old I faced an existential crisis of sorts. I remember it very well. The night just before one of the final tests french pupils (sorry for my mediocre english, by the way) take at the end of highschool, I stayed awake several hours processing different things that had happened to me in the previous months, and wondered what was it all about… I had frequently wondered about “the meaning of life” before, but on that night I felt an urgent need to find a decent answer to that question.

At about 4 AM I decided it would be a good idea to fall asleep, and settled for a vague answer that let me unsatisfied: just try to leave to your children something “better” than what your parents left you, whatever the meaning of “better” may be. That was a somewhat darwinian, paternalistic idea.

In fact I simply wanted to “make the world better” though I disliked the apparent naiveness of that idea; doing it for my future children, and not for every future human being, sounded less vague. At times, I tried, without much hope to succeed to find a way to somehow quantify or rationalize things like welfare or happiness, because you can improve only what you can measure. I was bumping my head against a wall, and I knew it, but I wanted to give it a try.

But if life has no meaning, then why would your children care about what you leave to them? This reminds me of a post from Sergey Brin on Google +:

No place in the world has made me consider my place in the universe like Jellyfish Lake. Millions of creatures all drifting seemingly aimlessly, searching for light, for the energy to spawn so generations of their offspring may do the same years later. I take a small breath, sink toward the bottom, watching them in wonder and think are we really so different?

Of course nothing has any meaning at all, “meaning” is something our brain constructs.

With the theory of evolution and the big bang theory, any inquiry about the meaning of life will inevitably drift to the meaning of the universe and of the laws of physics. Why is there an universe? That’s the super-size version of the “What’s the meaning of life” question.

Perhaps this quest for objective meaning shows a part of us that likes to be told what to do, to follow a plan of action, to obey to an imperative.

Perhaps conscious beings are precisely what gives a (subjective) meaning to the universe, or different subjective meanings?

Ultimately there is no finality, nothing has any end. You can ace a test because it is built to be completed with respect to some metric - you can answer every question within time limits - but you will have “completed” it from only one point of view - you answered right every questions in time. Under another metric (say the number of correct answers divided by the amount of energy your brain consumed in the process, or just the time it took you to achieve your score) you can not say you’ve “completed” anything.

This reminds me of one of my favourite tweets from Neil DeGrasse Tyson:

“As the area covered by knowledge expands, so does the perimeter of ignorance.”

Everything we do just calls for doing more.

I’ve decided that I would be living mostly for experiences - entrepreneurship, creations of all sorts, leisures, travels. I want to have a great time.

I’m 22 now, and I hope I will be able to look back, in old age, and see my life as a story of continuous moral and intellectual improvement. Today the Internet allows one to witness the immensity of the world, in terms of both material and intellectual content. I try to fill my life with variety - variety of varieties: places, people, activities… And if I am lucky enough to make a large sum of money in the process,I would spend it to do something really cool, like building a libertarian settlement in Antarctic, or curing death.

Here is a quote I love from Francis Scott Fitzgerald:

“One should be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”

Huge fan of that post by Sergey Brin - major props for pointing that out. I want to go to Jellyfish Lake now.

Thanks y'all for the sweet responses.


Addendum: After publishing this, I woke up to find another email in my inbox, professing to be the counter to the ‘positive’ responses above. It’s great to see a response from a somewhat jaded man who’s already lived a good portion of life, in contrast with most of the perspectives published above.

Here’s the honest albeit dark counter to the positive responses you mention in ‘Why People Live’. As I can’t be the only one with this mindset and/or experiences… please, if it’ll help anyone, use it as you see fit.

Answering your ‘Why?’

Because that’s what you do.

I suspect your line of ‘because we are alive now, and if we try not to think about it too hard, it’s easier to just go along with the motions’ nails it for most.

Even allowing for all the hopes and aspirations we nurture, it’s a rut along which we glide or stumble for much of the time we’re here when things aren’t going to plan and we’re not genuinely enjoying things.

Personally, as an overweight old man with glasses and no hair (currently working on a(nother) not-yet-launched startup - which this time I genuinely hope I’ll stick with and/or not get sideswiped by divorce/ill-health or other external factors largely not of my doing and beyond my control), aware of a marked decline in physical and mental ability I’m trying to take care of some stuff I should have done years back but didn’t and finally get myself onto a productive even course in which I earn enough to live sensibly and enjoy myself whilst being here to help family and appropriate others.

As a backstop, I find it’s easier and less guilt-inducing than taking an early exit by suicide.

The backstory is simple…

In mid-99 a 19-year marriage imploded when my then-wife left unexpectedly and without notice. Having heartily thrown myself into and enjoyed ‘being a family’, the split removed nearly all perspective and meaning from my life… so much so that I totally failed to handle being sole parent to three teen kids and within months found myself briefly detained in a locked-door psych ward, taken there by police to prevent self-harm.

I shortly thereafter slotted into another relationship (it was welcoming to be wanted again), albeit one in which genuine mutual love wasn’t enough to overcome often fiery incompatibility and after a turbulent 6-7 years it withered when the lady left the uk (that’s where I’m based and we were living) to return to her native US to put her son through high school.

Because of a shortage of money and other things we each had to deal with in our respective families, plans to spend intermittent periods together were never actioned and we grew progressively distant. The formal end came in late 09 when I entirely accidentally was invited into a relationship with an attractive and lively lady 20 years younger than me. And again, it’s not been smooth - despite great similarity in many areas, specific differences on one issue (her now-age-7 son) have been very problematic.

Whatever.

Amid all this, in recent years I’ve become jaded and frustrated through declining health (post-burnout chronic fatigue) which leaves me notably less-able to successfully pursue entrepreneurial ventures. The net effect is of adding to the frustrations of a life not-well-lived.

If I could go back and change things I would, but I can’t and so I live with what I have and have done, trying to do what I still can to enrich (metaphorically and financially) the lives of my partner and family.

I’ve reached a point at which I now know that I’ll never do some of the stuff I wanted to and perhaps genuinely still want to… even where desire remains the resolve has weakened. I’d be kidding myself if I genuinely thought I could meaningfully make the world better.

So yeah, I’m still working at getting things right even though I suspect I may not. I’m ‘driven’ (ha!) by a desire/need to serve those close to me and try to do something genuinely worthwhile which helps make the world a little better than had I simply sat back and thought ‘fuck it!’.

And so, in my slightly-zen dotage I try to satisfy myself with ‘do what you can with what you have to build this op right, earn enough to take care of those close to you’, try to use whatever influence you have wisely to help foster wisdom and compassion in others, and enjoy the simple things.

Enough.

You asked, I answered.

Be happy, live well - it’s a waste of a life not to.

Bye-bye.

;-)

I’d love to hear if this does ‘help’ or resonate with someone. Perhaps likeminded people can connect.


Further addendum: Apparently the responder above is a happy person after all! Good to hear.

A little postscript (if that’s the right word)…

Hastily written and not reviewed or edited, as as written it might convey a wrong (and certainly incomplete) impression.

Overall, despite the obvious at-times downs expressed therein, I’m happy. I don’t curse the sunrises and, in living a simple life, am quietly satisfied by being given more time here.

Ok, so an ongoing inability to sort my commercial matters leaves me short of the necessary money to cover food/essential expenses and a few frills, and frustratingly lowers my self-esteem. But things could be one helluva lot worse - and of course are for many many others.

Age and ‘can’t do that currently/any more’ seems to bring other compensations, not the least of which is inner reflection as I tend to look back (and fondly remember) rather than forward (and dream/plan great moves). There’s real enjoyment therein.

Sometimes I wish I was 25-35, and other times am glad I’m not. Perhaps obviously, ‘life is what it is’ and that’s the how I live it, often sanguine although sometimes unreasonably melancholy.

And that’s perhaps my one-liner point… it’s not all good and it is ok to feel crap about stuff. Take the good with the bad and flow - enjoy the ups and try not to get to flattened by the downs. The time we get here isn’t (or shouldn’t) read like a triumph-over-adversity self-help tome.

As someone else once said… ‘you gotta bleed a little while you sing, or the words don’t mean a thing’.

Thanks.

 
105
Kudos
 
105
Kudos

Read this next

The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

This is long, be warned. But it is well worth it. I didn’t write this one, but I think it’s extremely imperative the message here gets spread as far as possible. This was written by Nick Bostrom. I’ve posted my... Continue →