We’ve all heard someone say something along the lines of, “What is life?” or “What is my life?” for the purpose of expressing how confused he/she is or how desperate a situation is that he/she is dealing with. Aside from the fact that it’s quite a lazy way of expressing one’s feelings, I think it’s very strange (and almost sad, really) that such a question has become so trivialized. For example, someone is telling a friend that she has two term papers to complete in a single night and doesn’t know how to describe her honest feelings about the situation to her friend, she may defuse the tension by saying something along the lines of “I can’t even” or what even is my life right now?” The most common response to this occurrence is that both parties laugh about the comment so that they can progress on to a different subject.
I think there are two likely reasons for this laughter response:
- It’s perceived as a rhetorical question. Each person is assuming that the other a) has an understanding of what it means to be a person/to exist and that b) the other person’s understanding is the same as her own.
- Neither person can sufficiently answer the question if they were to take it seriously, so they both internal decide it’s best to just laugh it off.
Even as you read this rambling, you may be trying to dodge self-reflection of the thought by seeing this as something only I notice or experience. I’m not even saying one way is more right or wrong than the other (that is, dodging the question versus addressing it). Heck, just as the writer of Ecclesiastes laments towards the beginning of the book how he wishes he had the ability to simply ignore life’s abstract questions, I wish I didn’t have to have a semi-existential crisis once per day. But since I’m half crazy, I can’t help but press into that question when I’m one of the people involved in that situation. It invariably leads to others.
What is my life?
What is your life?
What is it to live?
I don’t think there are any sufficient answers to these questions. I think we know so little about how complex we are that for anyone to claim they’ve definitively figured out the right way to live one’s life would be a completely ignorant statement. I don’t mean that in terms of morality but rather in terms of practicality. As a believer in the life & teachings of Jesus, I know what’s morally right and wrong, but the way in which these actions are carried out is indefinite. It’s as Socrates said:
“The Oracle said that I was the wisest of all the Greeks. It is because I alone, of all the Greeks, know that I know nothing.”
I’d like to tell you a story. This story is not an attempt to persuade you to think a certain way. It’s more of a request for you to join me in my quest for piecing together what to make of these events that I experienced.
Order vs. Chaos
It was a typical work morning for those on my crowded Austin train headed towards the downtown station. Being unemployed, I enjoy using this setting for pretending to have a job like everyone else on the train. This morning, however, my thoughts drifted with uncertainty for the meeting my train briskly carried me to. I was attempting to prepare for both the personal and professional conversation I was to have over coffee with a long-time family friend, someone who just so happens to be one of the most successful businessmen in the city. He & his family are members of my church and are no doubt faithful throughout their family. Upon sitting down, it became quite apparent to me that the personal questions & conversation points I had prepared would not be necessary.
He got right down to it, telling the story of his family’s history of impeccable work ethic and widespread success in a variety of industries, and each generation passed these things on to the following generation. I’ve been quite blessed to be surrounded by such successful Christian businessmen, and I genuinely never tire of soaking in whatever wisdom the story of their experiences has to offer. He warned me of the dangers of mediocrity, pressing me to pursue excellence in whatever business I conduct. He spoke with a certain ethos that suggested this way of life was the best way to live life, a life not necessarily pursuing the benefits of work but rather pursuing excellence itself.
I left the cafe in a whirl of emotions, thoughts, and questions. What was I supposed to do now? Am I capable of such work ethic? Do I even want to be successful professionally? Should I want to? Do I even have the tools to be successful? I think I do. I think. Or do I hope? Perhaps if tell myself that I do enough times, I can suppress the doubt. No one in the business world necessarily wants to be average, but that’s the nature of average: most people are, by definition, average. But that sounds terrifying! Should it sound terrifying? I’m going down a rabbit hole now, what the heck do I even do?
Rise up the ladder. Establish unwavering discipline. Commit all your waking hours to it. Don’t just play the game.
Be the game.
The train on the return trip was basically empty since it was now the middle of the day, and most people have jobs & stuff. As I sat waiting for its departure, my mind hosted an all-out war between a feeling of panic due to the task at hand and my attempts to actually address the task at hand. Anyone who shares my Myers-Briggs letters knows this battle all too well. Unfortunately, the former was winning. I threw on my headphones to resume my audiobook: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (a book that’s firmly a member of the “books you think you hate because you were forced to read them in high school and you never understood it so it made you hate it but now that you’re not forced to read it, you can actually appreciate its brilliance” club. The club needs a shorter, more grammatically correct name.) Because as I said, I’m half-crazy, so I love spending my time on reading depressing works by 19th-century Russian philosophers.
Just as the train’s automatic doors prepared to shut, a man dashed through the gap. He appeared to be a middle-aged man, but his weathered, tanned skin and worn features added several more years to his appearance. He had the look of a typical Austin homeless person: jagged teeth, unkempt long hair, heavily worn clothing, and a pink-and-purple backpack carrying whatever else he had. After throwing himself into the seat across the aisle from mine, he immediately made it clear that he had every intention of holding a conversation with me, ignoring the presence of my headphones. Selfishly, I was eager to resume my book, but I surrendered my headphones as he persisted.
He spoke loudly with a brash, though amiable, tone, exhibiting that while he knew such mannerisms were uncouth, his had experienced too much in life to have any concern for social rules. We somehow arrived on the subject of our international traveling experiences. He told a few stories of his European accolades: a DUI in Copenhagen, a PI in Kiev, and, his favorite, an arrest on an airplane in Amsterdam for accidentally bringing marijuana on the plane. I told him a few of my own stories from Brussels, Barcelona, and Rome but found his stories much more interesting. The more he explained his lengthy travel history, the clearer it became to me that this man was not a homeless person at all. He was a troubadour.
One thing I love about the sojourners of the world is that, no matter if they stay or never stay in one place, they exist outside of civilization’s games and societal trivialities. They don’t have to “switch gears” to talk about life or existence as a whole because that game is the only game they actually participate in. Enthralled by this lifestyle, I grilled him with both interrogative and highly personal questions. He was in his early 50s and obviously unmarried, though some years ago he had met a woman (who did not appear to be anything but a side character in his story) with whom he had a child, who was the reason for his temporary visit in Austin. In a movie, this sort of a character would come from a chaotic, potentially even successful, background, and a series or even single chaotic event would be what triggered them to adopting this nomadic lifestyle. But not this man.
In a movie, this sort of a character would come from a chaotic, potentially even successful, background, and a series or even single chaotic event would be what triggered them to adopting this nomadic lifestyle. But not this man. For him, it made all the sense in the world. Sure, he no doubt had what we would call an “unconventional” upbringing, but he looked at the game society was playing and decided it wasn’t for him. None of it. No formal education, no lifelong careers, no stability, and no continuity. It wasn’t a response to some sort of a nihilistic or hedonistic worldview. It was simply what he decided to do. So for decades now, that’s what he’s done: move. Not move forward or backward or up or down, just move.
Despite his complete lack of academic education, there was a genius about his understanding of life that perhaps not even he realized, but I did. I think it was exhibited best in the later bits of our discussion, something I hope I don’t forget:
Me: “Do you own anything?”
Him: “Not really. And I don’t really want to.”
Me: “I think that’s admirable. Do you ever look around at our materialistic society and feel like you’re wrong for not want to acquire and own stuff?”
Him: “Ehhh maybe sometimes. The way I see it though is the less stuff I got, the less I gotta worry about. What’s the point of keepin’ stuff anyways?”
We talked about how Jesus, the God-man who claimed to be the physical embodiment of the ultimate terms of truth and life, chose to lead a very similar lifestyle. Where he stood in his theology, I’m not sure, but he gave one last nugget of wisdom as I the train arrived at my stop:
“[Jesus] said to look at the birds ‘n sparrows and think about how much more He must care about me. I can tell ya, there’s been days that I might have felt hungry, but never in my life have I ever gone hungry.”
I shook his hand, wished him well, and half-joked about maybe seeing him again out in the world one day. Half-joked. If I thought I was having an existential crisis before our encounter on the train, then I was undeniably in the midst of one now.
There’s no real resolution to this story. The events in it have been completed, but the concepts in it certainly haven’t. In both of these men’s lives, I see ways to live a life in accordance with ideal life Jesus proclaimed man ought to live. Each life presents its own unique set of troubles, difficulties, triumphs, and rewards. I can’t really say one way is more right or wrong another. But which one is best? I guess most people just pick how they want their own order-and-chaos scale to tilt and stick with it, not me. Does that make me weaker or stronger than most people?
Is a life of chaos “giving up” or is it “living life to the fullest”?
Is a life of order “mindlessly falling in line” or is it a display of true contentment with one’s place in the universe?
Practically speaking, there is nothing that we have to do in this vapor-like amount of time governed by fate, but is there something that we should do?
I encourage you to ask these questions of your own life not so you can vainly spend your time “in nothing except telling or hearing something new (Acts 17:21)”, but so you can join me in seeking the only thing, yes the only thing, of any relevance in this life: the truth. An understanding of the full, unadulterated, absolute, objective truth.