The question of lifefulness

Posted November 2, 2022 · 4 min read

This man had once been led… up the scaffold, and they read him his sentence of death by firing squad. Some twenty minutes later they read out a reprieve and another punishment was set instead; however, in the interim between these two sentences… he lived in the fullest conviction that he would die suddenly in the next few minutes. …

He said that nothing had been more difficult for him at that time than the incessant thought: "What if I were not to die! What if life were returned to me — what eternity! And it would all be mine! I would turn every minute into an entire age, I wouldn't lose a thing, I would count every minute, and wouldn't waste a thing for nothing!" …

He told me himself — he didn't live like that at all, and wasted many, many moments.

The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Some moments feel so consequential, so full of the essence of life, that everything else seems to fade away. I feel this the most often when I'm with people I love or in nature — the sense that this moment is what life truly is, and the kind of experience I should aspire to inhabit as frequently as I can.

And then inevitably the moment passes, and I'm left with the monotony and routine that seems to make up so much of everyday life.

On Sunday, I came home from a weekend spent cycling and camping. After soaring through tree-studded trails on my bike and feeling the morning mist of the Hudson, I walked back into my apartment with the sinking feeling that "real life" had to start again, wherein "real life" entailed doing laundry and preparing food over a stove instead of a fire.

When I first started to think about this, my perspective was that this oscillation between the vivid and the dull is just an undeniable feature of life. Although I think that may be a part of it, I have two other threads of thought about this phenomenon that I want to share.

Three threads of thought

An inevitable consequence

When I wonder about this experience, part of me believes that it's an inevitable consequence of the ebb and flow of life. In a post I wrote a few years ago, I reflected that it's unrealistic to expect life to always be above average. Along the same lines, I wonder if the vivid moments of life merely stand out against a conventional backdrop, and that if, for example, I actually lived in a cabin in the woods, the experience of waking up at dawn to see the mist on the water would then become routine and unremarkable.

Maybe it's just not possible to sustain a sense of fullness throughout every moment of life, and that although I enjoy novelty and wonder, I would still naturally gravitate towards regularity and stability in my day-to-day.

The result of fundamentally misguided decisions

It seems plausible to me that certain moments feel so life-full not because they are exceptions to life's core quality, but that we've systematically made fundamentally misguided decisions about how we want to live and are now dealing with the life-less aftermath of those decisions.

For example, it's almost a truism to say that being in nature is good for you, yet we intentionally build cities with minimal green space, or that sustaining relationships is one of the most meaningful things you can do, yet our culture is increasingly atomized.

It reminds me of a quote from David Graeber in his book Bullshit Jobs:

Together we create the world we inhabit. Yet if any one of us tried to imagine a world we'd like to live in, who would come up with one exactly like the one that currently exists? We can all imagine a better world. Why can't we just create one?

Some "monotonous" things, like doing laundry and cooking food, seem to be fairly mandatory when it comes to living a happy life. But sitting in a car for an hour every day to commute to work? Jumping through bureaucratic hoops to accomplish basic tasks? Constantly unsubscribing from pointless newsletters? There seem to be so many crushing, dull tasks that we've collectively accepted are "just a part of life", when it seems to me that we could very plausibly work towards more palatable alternatives for how we spend our precious time.

I'm complicit in this too — I find myself frequently completing meaningless administrative tasks simply because they feel like mini-accomplishments, when I could very well have ignored them and done something more energizing with my time.

A lack of mindfulness

I also wonder if part of my experience comes from my failure to mindfully inhabit even the "dull" moments of my life. I feel as though subjectivity must play some kind of role, because I can imagine two different people living in identical circumstances, one of whom notices small wonders in the everyday and the other who drifts through their life without paying attention to the beauty around them.

Familiar activities, like preparing coffee in the morning or taking a shower, are in some senses up for interpretation — they can be experienced as chores, or as routines, or as rituals. Maybe it's possible to infuse life with more colour and dynamicism simply by choosing to do so.

Collecting my thoughts

It seems likely to me that all three of these threads combine to form the truth — that certain experiences are inherently more consequential than others and I could deliberately include (or create) more of them in my life, but that it's also challenging to constantly inhabit that space.

As a bit of an afterthought, a while back I stumbled across a book called After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, by Jack Kornfield, about the modern spiritual journey. When thinking of this blog post, the title came to mind, and I have a suspicion that the book may include more insight into this question — so it will be an interesting endeavour to read it at some point and then return to these thoughts and see if there are any points of resonance.

For now, I'm off to my usual evening routine… but with a bit of a different perspective.

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