“One must immerse oneself in the river of life and let the question drift away” — Gautama Buddha.
Death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness are the four primary existential issues that everyone will experience at different stages of life.
Let’s Start With Death.
I first grappled with the concept of death when I was six years old. There were nights when I was lying awake in bed and terrified thinking about death, which was a little unusual for a healthy six-year-old who had not witnessed death before.
Anything is possible in life, and death is the end of further possibilities. I thought about death as being taken away from my loved ones. To where? I have no idea. No one could be exempt from death; that was a scary realisation for a child.
Death first became a real thing, meaning that it was no longer just a concept in my mind, when I lost my grandpa. I was 13 years old at the time. I was so grief-stricken that I could not talk about it then. I did not even share it with my best friend. Nobody knew about my loss except those in my family.
I pushed my grief and sadness aside and resumed life as normally as possible. For the first year, it was extremely difficult because I adored my grandpa. He lived with us for the last 10 years of his life. His death was the first reminder that life is finite. That was a hard pill to swallow. Every now and then, I am still reminded of the finiteness of life.
Lots of people change after their loved ones have passed away. They start to have questions about life, themselves, and what’s “next”. Death is a wake-up call. And an unnatural cause of death is a tragedy.
A common personification of death is the Grim Reaper. Or in Collateral Beauty (starring Will Smith), “it turns out death is an elderly white woman”.
White woman or Grim Reaper, I wonder what you would say if they appeared in front of you and invited you to a private tour organised by Death, given that they would spare you the gory details, would you be willing to tag along?
Say yes to this question and you would carry the burden of too much knowledge about death. Say no and you would miss out on the most exclusive, life-changing private tour. Tough call. At least for me.
I Never Thought Freedom to Choose Could Be an Issue Until Now.
Why would freedom — the ultimate freedom of choices — be an issue? Because once we have chosen, we are forced to relinquish other options. Alternatives exclude. That is the significance of choice.
Freedom is also associated with responsibilities. If we are truly free to do whatever we want, we are fully responsible for ourselves. We cannot blame anyone else for the choices that we make. We often enjoy freedom but not the responsibilities that come with it. There is no way to separate these two, you cannot have one without the other. No wonder Viktor Frankl suggests that there should be a Statue of Responsibility in the West to balance the Statue of Liberty in the East of America. The process of becoming an adult means taking full responsibility for our freedom.
“We are condemned to be free.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
It is, however, possible to enjoy freedom within the strings of responsibility. For example, every time I drive I often accelerate quickly when the light turns green, and I am the first car in line. I know that I usually have about 3–5 seconds of thrill and excitement before I hit the speed limit on the road if it is free of obstruction. I relish my freedom in this brief moment knowing all along that there is a limit to it and a responsibility to keep myself and others safe. Because it is possible for me to enjoy this small freedom, I know that it is possible to enjoy any other type of freedom and its association.
What Is Hard to Enjoy Is a Sense of Isolation.
I genuinely believe that we all feel a little lonely inside no matter what. No matter what we do or whom we surround ourselves with. Although some of us may feel very lonely when we are being forced to self-isolate during this COVID-19 period, we must be familiar with feelings of isolation way before this happened.
One experiences at various points in one’s life a sense of aloneness because no one else can truly understand one’s inner world, thoughts, and feelings the same way as one does. Therefore, a sense of isolation has always been there, we just didn’t give it a universal recognition until now. If you can take a step back, you will see that it’s okay to feel alone, at least it is a familiar feeling.
“We are thrown alone into the world and we have to leave the world alone.” — Irvin Yalom
Isolation will continue to exist long after the world is back to “normal”. It is better to learn to make peace with it. Like death and freedom, isolation is a “given” in life. It is not something to be rid of, but to live with.
Live With a Purpose.
Almost eight years ago, I signed up for Introduction to Psychology at The University of Melbourne. Since then, I have never once regretted it.
Now a registered psychologist, I understand that there is no such thing as a given meaning in life. There is an intrinsic essence of meaninglessness in all that we do. However, we must create meaning. That is our purpose in life.
I shall borrow Yalom’s words once more to explain our need to invent meaning.
“We humans appear to be meaning-seeking creatures who have had the misfortune of being thrown into a world devoid of intrinsic meaning. One of our major tasks is to invent a meaning sturdy enough to support a life…the questions that one can pose about meaning will always outlast the answers. Meaning, like pleasure, must be pursued obliquely. A sense of meaningfulness is a by-product of engagement.”
I have been filling my life with purpose, adventures, and achievements, but I know a sense of meaninglessness is just lurking around the corner. Maybe one day I will acknowledge that all these things that I have come up with are nothing but coping strategies for a lack of external meaning.
No one can escape from Death, Freedom, Isolation, and Meaninglessness. These are the “givens” in Life. It is precisely the finiteness of life that forces us to make the most out of it by exercising our freedom to choose and by trying to connect with other people as much as possible, whilst pursuing a purpose sturdy enough to support the lack of meaning.
So the next time you ask yourself about the meaning of life, remember what the Buddha said, “one must immerse oneself in the river of life and let the question drift away”.