Facing life and death


. . . Or, why I’m on a mission to simplify my life . . . 

Older people often dispense this advice: “do it while you’re young, while you don’t have much to lose.”

But this can’t be true. A young person has more to lose than an older person, because they have more time left. The younger person has the most valuable thing to lose.

Young people seem to sense this – I know I did…maybe I still do. They feel a lot of anxiety about what to do with their time while they still have it.

So what does the saying mean?

What I think this advice actually means is this: “I feel very tied down. I’ve taken on commitments and obligations I don’t want, and I don’t know how to get out of them. If I make a wrong move, I’ll lose my fortune, I’ll lose my house, my business will go south, I’ll lose my reputation. But you, young person, you don’t have these things yet, so you can still be carefree.”

There’s some hidden envy in this advice. We all long for a more carefree time, even if in reality that time was less ideal than we remember. But now that we’re intellectually equipped with the anxieties and uncertainties of youth, we’ve found other things to worry about – things that don’t increase our happiness, but that we’re scared to death to lose. A lifestyle we can’t actually afford, status in the eyes of others, the fear of shame, commitments we never agreed on.

Why do we work so hard to keep these things that don’t actually make us happy? It’s something I’ve been thinking about in my own life. . .

There are really two things I might lose. There are things that are genuinely meaningful to me: family, friends, objects with personal significance. But then there are things that might not be as significant as I think. A nice house, a fancy car, nice clothes, status.

The second class of things isn’t really tied with my authentic self, and it doesn’t actually increase my happiness. It’s just stuff I don’t want to lose.

But again, why?

I think we’re scared to lose these things, at root, because we’re scared of facing what’s important to us, and we’re scared of confronting our own mortality. I know that sounds like a bold claim, but see if this example makes sense.

Do I need these books in my house because I enjoy reading them, or do I need them because I’m scared of something else? Of course there are a lot of reasons people keep books. But when I sell a book I haven’t read, I’m admitting I’ll probably never read it. By extension, if I admit I won’t do something, that means admitting there are things I’ll never do.

When we choose not to do something and instead prioritize something else, we’re admitting that we have limited time and energy. And that’s because at some point down the road, we’ll run out of both. Every thing in our life is a choice about how to expend our time and energy.

But if we don’t make those decisions about what’s really important, we can avoid thinking about our own mortality. At least for a time. We can build our whole life around things that don’t actually matter just to avoid facing realities about ourselves and our existence.

If this seems like too much to you, consider this: people will bash themselves against a wall to keep these things that don’t really make them happy. Some people go into incredible debt just to appear rich or work hours and jobs that can in no way actually increase their amount of well-being by any reasonable standard. Many of them will even admit to hating these jobs. They might secretly regret all of these nice things, because they know they’ve created a jail for themselves. But they refuse let them go.

What could account for this behaviour if not for a truly deep and profound anxiety or fear?

So that’s the start of this project of mine. It’s my way of reducing things to essentials, so that I can see what they are really about. I know I need a change in many areas, and the first step seems to be to wipe as much clean as I can. Not because I don’t like nice things, but because I want to figure out what’s truly important to me. My goal isn’t to be austere, it’s to prune enough away that I can see through those things to my authentic self and have the freedom to make the decisions that need to be made.

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