What to do with Life
When dealing with the big questions, people rarely offer discussion or context. Instead, difficult queries are often met with shallow platitudes. If you want to hear a person say something that sounds really nice, but they don’t actually mean, then ask them a deep and unanswerable question.
Perhaps one of the most unanswerable questions is also the most pressing: What should a person do with their life? What activities should take up our days? What dreams should occupy us at night? Life, after all, is a temporary condition. What is the best way to spend our limited time?
There are as many answers to this question as there are people you ask. None of them are certain, but some are better than others. There are those who say you should find something you believe in, and commit your life to that thing. If you believe in compassion, then you should spend your life helping others. If you believe in family, then you should spend your life cultivating familial relationships. If you believe in power, then you should spend your life in pursuit of self-advancement and crush anyone who gets in your way.
Maybe power isn’t such a good thing to believe in. It sounds wrong to me, but maybe other people think its fine. Therein lies the problem with this advice. Telling someone to dedicate their life to something they believe in is fine, so long as you believe in it too.
Some people say it doesn’t matter what you do with your life, because you don’t really have any choice in the matter. Important parts of life are forever beyond anyone’s control. You don’t get to choose when or where you are born. You don’t get to choose what you look like. You don’t even get to choose what you are good at.
A person who is short will never make it in the NBA, no matter how much they dedicate themselves to basketball. They might find, in the course of their dedication, that they are really good with numbers and statistics. So they become an accountant or something. But is that something they chose to be, or just something that was going to happen anyway?
A person who is tone deaf might dedicate themselves to music, but they will probably never really make it as a musician. On the other hand, throughout time there are surely been countless talented people who never knew of their innate gifts because of the conditions of their birth. How many potential virtuosos never got a chance to practice music? How many potential literary geniuses were never taught how to read?
Telling someone they have no choice of what to do with their life may be technically accurate in many cases, but it is not very encouraging. And I am not sure it is completely true. Life is both completely random and preordained at the same time. This is something few people want to say, and something even fewer want to hear.
When I have asked what I should do with my life, usually I am given some variation of, Do whatever you want. Of course, it is never said this way. Usually people say follow your bliss or something like that. Follow your bliss sounds nicer than do whatever you want. It is more poetic, but means the same thing. If you want to make music, then make music. Even if you are bad at it. If you want to travel the world, then do so, even if it means avoiding responsibilities. If you want a PhD in comparative mythology then go for it, and don’t worry about the associated costs. And if you want to be president then you can do it! Even if you probably shouldn’t.
Telling someone they should do whatever they want is the worst advice. Not because it is unrealistic or selfish, but because it is usually dishonest. Lots of people say you should do what you want, but they don’t really mean it. I bet if you tell those people you want to do nothing, they will get mad. They will probably say you should want something else.
So then what are we to do with our lives? Should we follow our beliefs, resign ourselves to our fate, or just do whatever we feel like?