This is Part 3 of Bliss & Struggle blog series and explores the meaning of Living life to the fullest and its possible role as a universal human aim. You can visit the series home page for the full table of contents.
Sucking the marrow out of life doesn't mean choking on the bone.John Keating (Robin Williams)Dead Poets Society
Oh life! Oh wonderful pain in the ass! Source of poetry, and love, and thought… and wars, and injustice, and Facebook video ads…
Till life brings us together
So we know that we have a limited undefined life timespan, which means that every second I spend writing this blog post (or you reading it) is a second less of life on my bank account (and yours) and one second closer that both of us are to certain death1. And since this applies to every single human regardless of background, thus it seems quite logical that there’s indeed a universal human aim that should resonate for us all…
The drive to make the most of the time we have; to live life to the fullest.
Note: It could be argued that we also have a drive to make our “alive” time last the most, but 1) that is not so universal as the former (since for some cultures, an early death in specific conditions might be preferable to a later death under other conditions); 2) the desire for a longer lifespan is usually qualified (as in we wish to live longer if that time is spent under certain quality conditions, and may prefer to die earlier if those conditions deteriorate); and 3) lifespan is not something that we can directly control – yet (the most we could do is to play the odds and try to extend our expected lifespan with regular exercise, no alcohol, no smoking, eating vegan, dressing ourselves with bubble wrap…)
Ok, sure, we can all share a universal goal of making the most of our life (or living life to the fullest, if you wish), but what does that cheesy statement really mean?
It could mean many things, but it doesn’t mean any of them. Let me explain.
Keep calm and CARPE the fucking DIEM
The first thing that might pop into your head upon reading about “making the most of life” and “living life to the fullest” is the iconic Latin aphorism “Carpe Diem”, taken from book 1 of Horace’s Odes (written over 2000 years ago) and made popular by Robin Williams in the tear-jerker masterpiece Dead Poets Society:
“…if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? … Carpe … hear it? … Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
Carpe diem is usually (and some say questionably) translated as “seize the day”. However, according to our good friend Wikipedia, it has been argued that the original meaning of carpe diem as used by Horace was not to “embrace today” and “ignore the future”. On the contrary, it was a warning not to trust that everything is going to fall into place for you, and an urge to take action for the future today. That sounds great, but I honestly don’t care that much about what good old Horace meant with that expression when he wrote it 2000 years ago, I’m more concerned with the meaning that we associate with that expression TODAY.
And in regards to that, it seems that the expression is commonly associated to living life as if today was your last day. It’s a fancier form of the much more modern “YOLO” if you wish. An invitation to take the most you can while you can, because tomorrow it might be too late to do it. So fuck the future, the important is now. In consequence, carpe diem is widely associated to behavior that generates immediate gratification but with questionable future effects, such as partying hard, binge watching shows on Netflix, or taking big risks.
And before you accuse me of being a stuck up party-pooper, let me assure you that it is not my intention (yet) to declare whether this attitude is positive or negative. The only thing I’m trying to say is that if we understand “Carpe Diem” this way, then it seems pretty obvious that it presents a way of living that will only resonate for a few, and will fail to be meaningful and desirable for a big group of human beings. As such, this cannot be the universal meaning that we need for the expression “making the most of life” or “living life to the fullest”.
Happily ever after
Could then “making the most of life” or “living life to the fullest” refer to a potentially universal preference for a life of happiness? After all, isn’t happiness that which we are told to seek from a very early age? A happy ending2, a happily ever after… We are bombarded with ads, movies, series and social media posts that present smiley handsome people living aspirational happy lives3. We are primed to want happy and avoid sad… Share the good, hide the bad… So could that be it? Could it be that we all want to live a happy life? Is happiness that which truly matters? Is that our Universal aim?
Not really. You see, happiness as a universal human goal presents us with many issues. I would just need one to shut this happiness bullshit down, but I love sucking up your time and wasting mine with idiotically long posts, so here we go once again…
To start with, and similar to the issue described with Carpe Diem, we face a problem of meaning. What is exactly happiness? Well, as with all things terminology there is no unique answer, but the fact is that happiness is understood by some people (amongst which I include myself) as a fleeting emotional state, transient, emotional, contextual… And…Who in their right mind would assess their life based on a fleeting emotional state? Click To TweetNow, perhaps you understand happiness differently, perhaps it’s way more than a passing mood for you… or perhaps not. The fact is that for some people happiness is not something permanent, it’s something that comes and goes, and that’s more than enough to dismiss it as a universal human aim.
Sure, I could do like I did with Optimism and create my own super-cool definition of happiness that transcends temporality, but that would be very messy! Most people have incredibly strong pre-established notions of what it means to be happy and what it means not to be happy4, and ignoring those notions to boldly declare that “all humans aim to live a life of happiness” would not only be unproductive but downright dumb5.
Let me show you with a simple test. Close your eyes and visualize the word happy… What do you see? I bet you that for many of us the image that appears is that of the smiley emoji with his arched mouth on his big and round yellow face. Now, does that image represent something that can be used as a universal guide to figure out how to live our lives? No fucking way! Imagine living all your life with that dumb expression on your own face… Look at the Joker to see how that turned out… I get tired just by thinking about it! Moreover, a happy life sounds naive, two-dimensional, like a life drawn in crayons by a four year old toddler. Life is complex, textured, we cannot base our decision on how to live it on a simplified storytale!!!
2. Happiness is a ying that requires a yang to be meaningful.
To say that happiness is something to aim for, sends the not-so-subtle message that all the other negative emotions such as anger, sadness or frustration are not valid and desirable. That is clearly BS because negative emotions are as intrinsically human as positive ones, so it is inconceivable to deny their validity without attacking the very essence of the human condition. But not only that, without negative emotions… there could be no positive ones! Happiness has a meaning only as long as we can feel it’s opposite. Therefore, a life of complete happiness is semantically impossible.
And even if it were… what sort of life would that be? To be permanently happy you either need to be a sociopath or be stuffed with mood pills (soma) à la George Orwell’s 1984.
Now, you could say… well, a happy life doesn’t mean that you need to be happy all the time… Maybe it’s just a universal aim to be happier. But that’s as useful an aim as using a hedgehog to wipe your rear. Moreover, if the aim is to sometimes be happy and sometimes be sad… then how does that differ from the life most of us are already living?
3. Not everyone wants to be happy!
Surprise, surprise. There’s people (and cultures in general) that see happiness with suspicion or downright contempt. Some equate happiness to excess, and predicate the middle way of serene averageness. Others (which usually believe in sadistic Gods) place value on a life of suffering as something desirable and conducive to scoring a better judgment upon death. Either way, striving for happiness is not a universal, no matter how many Hollywood movies, Self-help Blogs, Lifestyle magazines, Car advertisements or Broadway Musicals try to convince you otherwise.
But wait, before I move on, I need to make this clear. The fact that happiness cannot be the Universal we need, doesn’t mean that I think happiness is by definition a bad thing. I’m no Ebenezer Scrooge, so all trolls of Christmas past, present and future can stay where they are.
Other religiously motivated aims to make the most out of life
Let’s not waste much time on this since the answer is obvious. If your religion tells you that to be a good lamb you need to strive for X or Y, that’s all nice and well (not really, but not the moment to make that point). What matters is that we humans don’t share a common religion and as such we cannot use any culturally specific aims to unite us all.
And to all yihadists reading this (I know you are there – and yes, there’s people like that in most religions, not only among Muslims…), please note that this is not an argument in favor of your fight to convert all of humanity into your belief system. Sure, it would be convenient but I think that in the future that we want to build, human diversity ranks way higher than convenience (and I’ll eventually prove that).
So after all this lengthy mental masturbation, where does that leave us? How should we understand “making the most of our life” or “living life to the fullest” to use it as a valid human universal aim on which to assess our present and build towards a better future?
The answer is stupidly and annoyingly simple: with a definition wide enough to incorporate all the ones above and any others that might exist.
Enter the world of Bliss.