Most people I know feel endlessly fascinated by the lives of others, yet consider their own existence to be little more than drudgery and toil. This is a peculiar but universal trait of our species. We are obsessed with what others do – and how they do it, and why. Television, with its reality shows and crime documentaries, profits greatly thereby. YouTube pretty much exists to meet this need.
Other lives hum with the background music of drama and adventure, while ours, alas, plod on in the cadence of dull prose.
It doesn’t matter if the lives are fictional so long as they are “not me” – in fact, as Hollywood and the book publishing industry know, falsehood may actually enhance our interest. The most intriguing person who never lived may well have been R. R. Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Crime and Punishment. At least I think so. Objectively speaking, it sounds pathological to weep over a naked lie: instead, it’s all too human.
I don’t know why we find other people so fascinating. Mostly they aren’t, at least not any more than we ourselves are. We probably succumb to a combination of empathy and fear. We are hardwired to connect emotionally to the inner lives of others, and to predict their behavior relative to our own survival. People also learn largely by example, so all the peeping, gossiping, and story-telling may have a didactic purpose.
I have no problem with snooping into my neighbor’s business as a sort of hobby, an idle sport: but I want to argue, against the odds, on behalf of my own life and yours.
There’s nothing strange about the feeling of drudgery. Life, all the proverbs and commercials tell us, is short – but the day is long. Duty and necessity fill up most of the hours. We yearn to find meaning, to impose a grand theme, uniquely ours, on the passing of time, but instead we feel like that feather in Forrest Gump, blown here and there by external forces. Helplessness and boredom turn us against our own life’s tale.
I have lived long enough to understand how tactical and moment-driven, and therefore mistaken, this perspective is.
Human life is a range of possibilities derived from the circumstances of birth. Some encounter hardship and suffering. Some are privileged and pleasurable – the existential equivalent of a stroll in the park. But all entail choices, and the consequences are unknowable in advance. I may drop out of college and become Steve Jobs or the dishwasher at Chili’s. I may marry the girl of my dreams and experience a nightmare or joy to old age.
Every life is a mystery even to itself. My life is a mystery to me. I make choices and things happen which force yet more choices on me. The connections seem unclear. Causes and effects are nebulous. Hamlet called death the undiscovered kingdom, but that description pertains to the living future as well.
Each of us is Columbus, sailing into the unknown. All of us must discover the world anew. The keepers of culture and tradition labor to keep our lives bounded, but each of them is an individual, each has made a choice and internalized, in a personal and subjective way, a set values and moral directives meant to guide a community, an entire civilization. The most timid and hidebound human being is a discoverer of continents.
If we embraced a sense of adventure commensurate with the uncertainty of the future, I suppose we would all drop dead from excitement. However, a bit of buzz in the bloodstream about the surprises which lie ahead is justified at every age. Kids must stare down monsters in the shadows. The young must bump into and stumble around an alien world crowded with adults. The middle-aged – likeliest to forget life’s adventure – share decades with spouses in uncertain intimacy, raise children with yet-untold stories, navigate careers with unknown destinations.
For the old, death permeates all calculations: every action is taken with a mysterious final reckoning in mind.
The doors to adventure stand open, even to the end. The worth of a life, the measure of the man, is his relation to the adventure which happened to be his lot. None is important in itself. None is insignificant either. This is not a matter of egalitarian principle but of mathematical complexity. Abraham Lincoln and Jonas Salk may have had the power to free or to heal, but their achievements rested on an infinite number of obscure circumstances caused by anonymous individuals. The latter are the wings of the butterfly which bring about the hurricane.
Greatness depends on smallness: no human life is so mean or deprived that its adventure isn’t big with consequences.
Here I might be accused of playing the glad game, portraying the world in a Panglossian light. Some lives, it might be argued, are too brief to matter. They add nothing to the store of our experience. Others are contemptible. Others still are vicious, morally depraved. What is the worth of their adventure? Wouldn’t we be better off if these hadn’t taken place?
Excitement about tomorrow, too, may be proper for a well fed, well educated, well-to-do character – for me: maybe not for the Alzheimer’s patient, though, or the mother of a dying infant in Somalia. To endow the latter with the emotional life of the former, my accuser might claim, can only be the product of bourgeois romanticism.
But I am not playing the glad game. This is not a glad season of my life. I’ve lost people close to me, family members and neighbors – and it is precisely their loss, the pain of it, but also the appalling arbitrariness, which led me to wonder why we fail to value the story of our own lives.
When I say adventure I don’t mean a Disney World ride. An adventure is a test. Most of the time, we fail. That is the way of the world. The excitement I feel arises in the determination to endure, even advance, in the face of failure. I would not judge the suffering Somali mother by the same standards I judge myself, but every moment she maintains her integrity is a triumph, even if she falls apart the next. The adventure is a test of truth: when truth is lived, we are redeemed.
Adventure makes a single demand: that we become worthy of it. Once we perceive life in these terms, we must engage in a struggle to measure up. Most of the time (I repeat) we will fail. The contemptible and vicious fail systematically. They deny the adventure. They are unworthy of the lives they were given. Their fall into the abyss serves as a terrifying reminder of the stakes for which we are playing.
The last temptation is to escape into falsehood. If I’m consumed by the drudgery and triviality of my days, I may deny who I am. I will then lie to myself about myself, and to all around me about my place in the world. This is a form of suicide. I disintegrate into a shifting shadow, a specter of deluded vanity, visible only to those in the same condition as me. My ruling emotion will resemble a criminal’s: fear of being exposed. My unforgiving enemy will be the truth.
I expect most people lie to themselves in moments of weakness. I have done so often enough. But when I think of the people I love who are now gone forever, I don’t want to lie to myself about them, I don’t want to falsify or prettify their stories: I want to honor their truth as I understand it. My life’s adventure is bound with theirs, and the whole crew of us, living and dead, belong with the sweeping self-willed trajectory of the human spirit, a cosmic migration to a strange land.
We may deny ourselves in fear and weakness, like St. Peter, before the cock crows, but can’t escape the truth in the light of day. We are headed somewhere unknown, at an uncertain pace, for mysterious reasons – and we might as well enjoy the ride.