“But life isn’t hard to manage when you’ve nothing to lose.” – Ernest Hemingway
Fearing death is instinctive. While fear of death stems from a variety of causes, there are a few common themes: fear of the after-life; fear of leaving behind loved ones; unattained goals; fear of not experiencing enough; and fear of not leaving behind a legacy. Most people don’t regularly think about their death; everyone knows it’s going to happen but it’s not imminent. Nevertheless, people are concerned with how they will be viewed once they leave this earth. The truth is that unless you are part of the .01% of people whose legacies will (maybe) live on forever, you will eventually be forgotten. Your name and everything you have accomplished in your life will be lost. Instead of feeling fear, I find this truth incredibly liberating.
Living my life based on others’ expectations is something I frequently think about. By nature of having grown up in a Philadelphia suburb, and having graduated from a prestigious prep-school and a selective liberal arts college, I have been surrounded by extreme competiveness my whole life. Whether it was conscious or subconscious, my peers and I were driven by others’ expectations. Expectations engrained so deeply, that they didn’t seem like a choice. In fact, where I was raised, the expectations were higher than most people could imagine. The acceptable career paths: doctor, lawyer, professor, finance, maybe entrepreneur. As I started to think about the limits of my life, I realized that eventually no one will remember my relatively dubious accomplishments, and the whole ethos seemed absurd.
Think about how short your life is. You can’t drink legally (in the U.S.) until you’re 21. Your brain doesn’t stop maturing until you’re in your late late-20s/early-30s. You start losing energy and cognitive function well before your 70s. The cliché, “life is short,” is incredibly appropriate. An individual’s lifespan is a minute fraction in just HUMAN history alone. If you consider the histories of the earth and universe, our lives begin to seem increasingly short and insignificant. Your life most likely won’t mean anything 150 years from now. Your great, great grandchildren probably won’t even know your name.
Oddly enough I find these thoughts comforting. This realization is what I needed to validate my desire to live day by day. As long as your bases are covered both monetarily and socially (i.e. you can afford to feed and shelter yourself and have at least a few true friends) then you have every right to do whatever makes you happy. Each day HAS to be enjoyed. The average person sleeps eight hours a day; this results in 33% of each day and 9,582 days of your life being spent unconscious. I stopped caring what other people think. I stopped obsessing over the idea of finding a career. The best result: I started taking the steps necessary to enjoy each and every day. By realizing that on the Earth’s history scale my death was imminent, I was able to enjoy another cliché: the little things. I was relieved of the burden of trying to “make something of myself.” I stopped viewing life as a series of milestones.
Life is too short to be wasted, yet so many people do just that. And the sad thing is people don’t even realize it. Fighting against this social programming is incredibly difficult. Some people think the solution is to stop caring what other people think, but I don’t think that that is possible or productive. I think the only way to truly live the life you want is to realize that nothing you do is that important. Nothing you do is worth crippling stress and nothing you have or haven’t done is worth crippling regret. You owe it to yourself to enjoy what little time you have in this universe. Don’t spend it doing something you hate, don’t spend it around people who you can’t tolerate or don’t tolerate you, and don’t take anything too seriously.