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042 - On The Meaning Of Life - Moral Letters for Modern Times

How do we find meaning? By learning to identify all those things that are meaningless, and serve only to weigh us down: public opinion and trends; fashion, fame, and fortune; anger, envy, and longing.
Rocky path in Swiss alps - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

So I understand your friend is trying to convince you he has figured out the meaning of life. I recommend a healthy skepticism towards anyone who says they have it all figured out. Exercise particular care with the ones who are selling you a simple solution.

Do you know how rare it is that a person becomes truly enlightened, in the sense of the Buddha or the Dalai Lama? A person who puts their worldly cares behind them and lives a life of joy and compassion? Perhaps we see signs of it in children. This transcendence is so seldom achieved in adulthood, and so striking when we do find ourselves in its midst, that you will have no trouble mistaking the practitioner for the master.

“My friend is calm and composed,” you say “when others are incensed by small things.” You can observe a cobra from a distance every day, and never see it bare its fangs. Until you do. Perhaps it is simply that your friend has not been sufficiently provoked. Do not be impressed by a person who remains calm when there has been no disturbance. The fact that others are disturbed by small things tells us nothing.

“He condemns politicians who abuse their power, who tend to themselves rather than their constituents.” This says nothing of his true nature, Deuteros. For among all those who shrink from the whip, there are but few who would not themselves wield it willingly if the whip should fall into their hands. The only thing preventing the average person from becoming tyrants themselves is they lack the means to implement their whims. Situations make most people who they are, and it is exceedingly uncommon for a person to make themselves in spite of their limitations.

Though your friend is unlikely to be a guru, if for no other reason than he professes himself as such, there is no shame in being a practitioner. We are all pilgrims walking the same path and the value for most of us is in the progress we make. Point yourself in the right direction and take a single step, and you have advanced farther than those that run a thousand miles aimlessly.

How do we find meaning? By learning to identify all those things that are meaningless, and serve only to weigh us down: public opinion and trends; fashion, fame, and fortune; anger, envy, and longing. Note how fickle these things are, and how insubstantial. Though you cannot see them or hold them in your hand, still they are the heaviest of burdens. With each of these chains we shrug from our shoulders, our load becomes lighter, and our steps more carefree. Satisfaction and joy lie along this path, and the cost to us is giving up things that require us to pay a price, whether in money, time, or attention.

For everything we plan to seek in life, let us first understand the cost to obtain it. Naval Ravikant shows wisdom when he says:

Desire is a contract you make with yourself to be unhappy until you get what you want.

What is keeping you unhappy? What you want. What do you want? … Happiness

We do not want things. We want what we think those things will bring us. No matter how eagerly we sought a possession or a promotion, notice how quickly they start to lose their luster the moment we attain them. The new car becomes a used car the instant you drive it off the lot. The new phone is soon outshone by a rival as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow. The big new office that comes with the big new job is quickly filled with the big new problems that you now feel weighing you down.

To make yourself unhappy by wanting things that will not make you happy is not a recipe for success. Let me end again with Lucretius, because it bears repeating:

The greatest wealth is to live content with little, for there is never want where the mind is satisfied.

Our most important possession is our self-possession, and once having taken ownership of this, you have all that you need for a meaningful life.

Be well.

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