Day 33: What Makes Life Worth Living

First of all, let me be clear from the beginning: I don’t have the answer for such an impossible question. Second, I didn’t just come up with such title to make this blog post sound more interesting than it is. In fact, I may not have anything new to share with you today, in this post. You, actually, might find that this particular post to be the most shallow, content-less, and lack of substance of all of my posts. So, I am warning you. Reading this post might not worth you time.

My next read.

I didn’t even come up with a title of this post. Yes, I am a blatant copycat of ideas. It is a title of a book that I plan to read next by Prof. Gordon Mathews, who teaches anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). Despite the grandiose title, the book is not about the metaphysics of life as such, but an anthropological inquiry into the ways in which the two groups of people of which Mathews have lived with — the Japanese and the American people — make of their lives. In Japanese, the term Ikigai (生き甲斐, pronounced [ikiɡai]) is a traditional concept, meaning “a reason for being,” or as Mathews writes, “broadly, that which most makes one’s life seem worth living.” In the Japanese society, ikigai is both gendered and generational. For instance, Mathews presents in an article published in the journal Ethnology in 1996 (which I believe to become a chapter of the book) that most common ikigai of women is family and children, and the most common ikigai of men is work and company — as well as family. But this concept of ikigai, of course, changes over time, as we become older (and probably wiser, and sometimes, unfortunately, grumpier). Mathew’s main argument is there is something socially deterministic about life. We don’t have the full control of it. The society in which we’re born into is responsible for the reason that you may think makes your life worth living. That said, the impact of the social determinism of the society into which we’re born also varies. Some cultures of some societies have a much more profound on their citizens.

A diagram explaining the reason to live or ikigai, which is a combination of four things: things that you love (usually have to do with your intuitive passion), things that pay your bills (which may not be what you love, but you use your “reason” to continue to do it), things that make you feel valuable (this is where professionalism, as I wrote about in my last post comes into play), and things that are related to the larger purpose in life (such as spirituality and religion). By Marc Winn

I have heard about the book What Makes Life Worth Living?  How Japanese and Americans Make Sense of Their Worlds from colleagues who were students of his at CUHK, but haven’t gotten around to read it. Now it’s the time, and I’ll tell you why I think so. Long story short, I just spent 146 minutes of my life watching a 2010 based-on-true-story film called Cold Fish , which arguably is one of most gruesome yet realistic films in the history of cinema — about a Japanese family that falls apart in an extremely troubled way because of the social pressure surrounding it (IMDb gives it 7 out of 10 which is a very high rating for a film in this genre). After having watched the film, I began to think about the connection that I may have with it, since there were a lot of things in (and about) the film that resonate with me, and I found one, which is the fact that it’s a film about Japan. That was how I thought of Prof. Mathew’s book, since it’s about Japan. As I wrote in my last post, I always have a soft spot for the Japanese culture, so the reason for choosing to watch this film in the first place was because it’s a Japanese film. Then, I tried to think very carefully about the meaning of the film, and extract the message that it tries to send, which I believe to be the fact that not just the unbearable social pressure that has the capacity to drive us to absolute despair, making us feel that the impulse to end the life of our own, or the lives of others, is real. Quite the contrary, the extraordinarily mundane condition of being that makes us less human beings — what the novelist Milan KunderaI would probably refer to as The Unbearable Lightness of Beingalso has the same effect as the unbearable social pressure.

Cold Fish, the crazy film that I just spent more than two hours of my life watching. It’s a film about a man, whose family is falling apart because his life is so unextraordinary and mundane. His wife no longer wants to be intimate with him, and his coming-of-age teenage daughter is nothing but a troublemaker. This vulnerability eventually draws him into association with criminals who simply want to use him. There’s no way out except ending it all in a gruesome way.

People kill themselves (and others) when the pressure is too much to bare. People also kill themselves (and others) when there is no pressure at all, and life is just an absurd process of the perpetual lack of excitement. The latter cause of suicide is much easier to prevent than the former one. In fact, as the French sociologist Émile Durkheim has reminded all of us with his meticulous research on social pressure, we can do nothing about suicide-by-social-pressure as long as modern capitalism still continues to advertise “freedom” as the motto of one’s life, produce the false notion of “excessive hope” that only a small number of people could possibly fulfill, generate the overwhelming sense of individualism to undermine the unscientific notion of spirituality, family, and the sense of moral responsibility. Cold Fish is a film about the power of social determinism. The protagonist, a man who runs a small tropical fish shop, could only do so little to make his life better. Because, at the end of the day, when one is in despair, one just one someone to say “it’s going to be alright,” whether that someone is a person, a family member, or an imagined almighty God. In despair, we want a pad in the back. In despair, the last thing we want to hear is “you are on your own.” In despair, the only freedom that is available to us is the freedom to take your own life. As the Stoics once famously say, “when it’s too unbearable, all you have to do is to turn up your own wrist.” The existentialist (Nobel laureate) novelist Albert Camus also observes, quite accurately, that the only philosophical question worth delving into is suicide:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.

To put it bluntly, nothing is more metaphysical and serious, than the question is whether one wants to be, or not to be.

I can sympathize with those who no longer want to be because there are too much pressure in life. That said, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I support suicide. Quite the contrary, I don’t think suicide is acceptable at all, both on the moral as well as the sensibility grounds. In addition, since I’ve lost my father, I have begun to realize how lucky I am to be. My father wanted to live but he didn’t get a chance to, so I want to live not just my, but a good life, also on his behalf. On the moral ground, I’d like to invite all of us, again, to revisit what I still believe to be the most succinct expression of reason not to kill yourself by the man, Immanuel Kant, himself. In The Foundation of the Metaphysics of the Morals, he proposes the idea of looking at the matter of “living a life,” not as a matter of choice but the absolute form of duty:

Suicide: A man reduced to despair by a series of misfortunes feels wearied of life, but is still so far in possession of his reason that he can ask himself whether it would not be contrary to his duty to himself to take his own life.

On the sensibility ground, what’s the point of killing yourself? There are two facts that we are lucky enough to know: the fact that we will die anyway, and a synthetic a priori fact that we “are stronger than we think.” Human beings are capable of going through many kinds of hardship. Some of which we didn’t know that we were able to go through until we did so, and then looked back at it — “I was so silly; why did I think that I won’t be able to do it?” So, these are the two knowledge that we know for sure. They, moreover, seem to be supporting each other underpinning the argument that there is no point in rushing to the end process, knowing that we might, or might not get through the hardship anyway. It’s like giving up on an exam and fail it right away, without even try to pass it first. I call this the “sensibility ground” — or, the ground on which we exercise our ability to appreciate and respond to complex influences by being sensitive to what we really know for certain.

So, the goal of this post is to reason why people kill themselves (and others) when there is no pressure at all. One reason is that such life no longer gives you the Ikigai or the reason for being. Karl Marx would see it the same way, although he would probably not describe it as such, but the losing of what he’d call “species essence” — a rational being should have the freedom to exercise his or her own mind and thoughts in the way that benefit him or her. Many other philosophers also have tried to identify the condition that makes us lose ourselves, and make us forget Ikigai. Let me talk about Ikigai for a couple more sentences here, because I think the idea of which is deeply powerful. In the diagram above, we clearly see that Ikigai is about balancing the four towers that are balancing our life. It’s clear that only one of them has to do with the things about which we love and passionate about, and all other three polls are pretty much whatever provides us with food, shelter, dignity, and meaning and higher goal to live for. For those who gets to be in the profession where these four towers are one, they are the absolutely lucky ones.

For example, let’s think of David Beckham — he loves soccer, and he gets to play it everyday. By playing soccer, he’s inspiring many people in the world, and it, well, for sure give him more wealth than he ever needs in the next ten lives of his. That is, one day maybe he’ll get bored with soccer, or perhaps his body is no longer good enough to play in the professional level; then he would need to find something else to do so that he could continue to maintain his sense of being. There are many athletes who are content when they are on top of their games. Only until when they are retired from sports and having to start doing things that fall outside their immediate realm of passion. Many of them can’t deal with it, and go into sex, drugs, and alcohol, with the hope that they would temporarily help them to get through the lack of the guiding light they once hold dear. Most of us are not not like David Beckham. I, for one, is not like that. There are things that I love doing, but I am not as good at that as the things that I am being paid for, so no one is paying me to do things that I am passionate about, but instead paying for doing things that I am only semi-interested in. And I am content with my life because although it’s not perfect, I have to compromise, but such a compromise still allow me to extent my being into doing things that pay my bill, make me respect myself, and give me the space, time, and comfort, to think about my higher purpose. In other words, we do things we don’t want to do from time to time just to get by, and in my occasions what we do also make us feel deeply sad about our own sense of morality. When one of three towers that is not about your passion is taking too much time of your life, that’s usually when you are losing the sense of Ikigai, or the guiding light to being.

So, what exactly makes life worth living?

I sincerely don’t know if my life is that worth living. But since I know for sure that suicide is, and will never be, an option, and that I am “stronger than I think,” I don’t see the reason to emancipate from it. As I wrote in the previous posts (On Aging, I believe), I am experiencing something new every day, and that’s absolutely exciting. That, for me, is enough to make me want to continue my life.

That said, the question “what makes life worth living?” is different from, and therefore not to be confused with the question, “what is a reason to live?” You could say that your family is your reason to live — you have to pay their bills; you have to send your daughter to school; you have to take care of your parents — but that doesn’t mean that your life is worth living. Many existentialist philosophers would argue, even, that anything that you “have to do” is bad for you.  You should be free to do whatever you want. On the one hand, you could take it at face value, and as such, by saying that your life is something you can’t change, and therefore the reason to live is the same as what makes life worth living. For those who know me well, they probably know also that whenever someone says that to me I often, if not always, give them words of wisdom from Jean-Paul Sarte:

We are in “bad faith” whenever we tell ourselves that things have to be a certain way and shut our eyes to other options. It is bad faith to insist that we have to do a particular kind of work or live with a specific person or make our home in a given place.

On the other hand, this is why you need something beyond what matters in the physical world would help answer this question. For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, what lies beyond the physical world is, what he calls, the noumenal world, in which everything there is a thing in itself (the German’s translation of this is das Ding an sich,or thing-in-itself). Human beings cannot access the noumenal world, yet, because we use our practical reasons—i.e., the capacity for acting as a moral agent— to make sense of the world. These practical reasons include, of course, paying bills, following social convention, doing what’s considered “filial,” and so on; but, none of these falls outside of what Jean-Paul Sarte calls “bad faith.” The fact that matter here is that these things are considered “practical” because you prescribe such value to it. It may be practical to you because you happen to have no ability to see it otherwise. Yet, you shouldn’t confused your inability to change things with the nature of the world, as such.

After having watched Cold Fish, I must say that I am more certain (than ever!) that living an extraordinary life that only pays bills won’t do it for me. For one reason — and spoiler alert — I don’t want to end up ending my life in front of my family like the protagonist does in the film. I still believe that being poor but following your own passion is better than being affluent but “unextraordinary” like the man in Cold Fish. A short (and lame) answer to the question What Makes Life Worth Living would be something about finding joy in the process of balancing the four towers to which you have to divide your time, attention, and space in order to sustain your life. This answer is lame because, as you also know, it’s easier said than done.

So, instead of that, I would like to offer my answer. What makes my life worth living is the fact that I know that I am free. By being free, I don’t have to hold on to what Jean-Paul Sarte calls “bad faith,” or to what the society believes to be good for me. I am free to decide whatever I think is more meaningful for me to engage in; therefore, I don’t have to live my life in an unextraordinary way.

True. I also have to pay bills. Ideally, I would like to live in the woods like Henry David Thoreau. I can, actually, and I will probably do that soon (I am actually looking for the right woods at the moment). As of now. I am still content with paying bills, because it also means that I am being responsible for my own action.

Being free doesn’t mean you have to have the full control of your physical life and therefore have the natural right to do anything you want. “Being free” means you are free to do anything you want as long as you are content with, and will take full responsibility for the consequences of your own action. Immanuel Kant, again, frames freedom as the right to have the full autonomy over your own self, which, the philosopher Michael Sandel in his bestseller Justice describes it as follows:

When we act autonomously, according to a law we give ourselves, we do something for its own sake, as an end in itself. We cease to be instruments of purposes given outside us. This capacity to act autonomously is what gives human life its special dignity. It marks out the difference between persons and things.”

In a big city like Shanghai, now that I come to think of it, I am free, as an autonomous being, to do many things I want to do because I have the consumer society to support me. I don’t have to harvest my own agricultural produce, and don’t have to cut down trees by myself so that I won’t be freezing to death. So, the law that I set for myself is the law of reciprocity, gratitude, and responsibility toward not only my fellow human beings but the environment as a whole. I want to be able to also support it so that it will continue producing consumer’s products and services that would allow me to be even freer — therefore, I pay my bills.

What makes my life worth living is simply because I always make everyday of my life different from the precious days. The secret here is to be thankful to have another in life to live, and see how you evolve, as a reciprocal, gratitous, and responsible being. I don’t rely on what I think I already know, and I don’t simply stick to what I think I already know. If I can change, things can change too. If things can change, then why stick to the same old methods of comprehending the world around you? Every day of my life is all about being humble to new ideas, considerate to new opinions, and respectful to others who always something different from what I know to share.

What makes my life worth living is the fact that I know that I am free to learn new things every day. My life is worth living because I don’t have to tolerate people, or things, that don’t make sense to me, especially the people who treat me as means to some ends. I have the full autonomy to walk away from them, and live my life with and for whom my life has a larger meaning.

What makes my life worth living is that I know that, not to sound so Kantian today, I am free to take everything as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end. It’s the feeling of being free from any social conventions that could dictate my action. I am free to not having to follow things that don’t makes sense. I don’t have to live in bad faith. I am an “autonomous being” who can make rational choices, even though if those choices are prearranged for me — nothing is wrong with choosing the prearranged choices as long as they work with the law that you have set for yourself to follow. It’s not the case that everything prearranged is bad for free will. I think it’s misleading to think so, in fact. Free will is our ability to exercise our reason “freely.” What it means by “free” is not the condition of not being under the control or in the power of another — we still have to force ourselves to accept the fact that we can’t escape the law of gravity, the absolute governing maxim of nature, and so on. Being free also doesn’t mean that we can simply act or be done as one wishes — the absolute free will is to have the respect for the dignity of the existence and presence of other human beings. Even though if I am free to kill other people without having to bare any consequences whatsoever, I, still, will not do it. That law that you set for yourself to follow, as Kant argues, is the law that predicates on the absolute respect for human species. That law is the genuine moral knowledge — or what Kant would call a synthetic a priori knowledge, or the knowledge that is not bound by the inert definition, and does not require our unreliable subjective experience to come to grip with it.

What makes my life worth living is the fact that I have people for whom I want to live — the people who don’t treat me as a means to an end. In other words, what makes my life worth living is the fact that I am living it.


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