The purpose of my life


An Honest Attempt At Solving A Nasty Problem/A Preliminary Investigation Into The Purpose And Meaning Of Life, And What We Have To Do To Lead Fulfilling And Happy Lives


~ An Ode to the Movies ~

“Real life is not like in the movies where you get a realisation and your life changes the next day. In real life, you get a realisation, and your life changes a month later.” ~ From Postcards from the Edge

A few days ago, at a quarter past one in the morning, I gave myself a deadline: at half past one, I had to have an answer to the question of what I want to do with my life. I took up position on the porch, and smoked a cigarette. Half-past one came and half past one went, as expected, without any progress in my investigation. Help, or inspiration, would have been welcomed with an open mind.

A film I had seen a few months ago came to mind as a possible indication of how to look for an answer. The film is about a bunch of software engineers, and how they struggle with the question of the value of their lives. (As it happened, one character is a little more obsessive about the topic.) During one conversation, they discuss the difference between what they are currently doing with their lives, and what everyone would consider being more ideal for them. In other words, if they don’t have to while away at least eight hours per day, five days per week in office cubicles for an income, what would they do with their time? One character mentions that a teacher once asked them what they would do with a million dollars. The answer, in theory, would have given them an indication of what career they should follow. For example, if one had said he would fix old cars then that was suppose to mean he should become a mechanic. (Don’t you get the impression sometimes that life is a white elephant? Someone gave you this thing we call “life”, but you’re not sure what to do with it and throwing it away is not an option.)

Inspired by this bit of advice, I asked myself the following question: If I had a million dollars, how would I spend my days and nights?

Now, this happens to be a cloud upon which I often fall asleep at night, and preliminary answers are always the same – buy my parents a large house and give them enough money so they can retire, give my two sisters enough money so that they never have to worry about money again, buy myself an old building, travel for at least six months, see all the places I’ve always wanted to see, build up an international network of lovers … and then I usually fall asleep.

After an hour or so of considering what I would do with a million dollars, I could not come up with a better answer than the usual lineup. I knew these are all short-term goals. If I’m done buying houses and giving away boatloads of money, the goals are no longer valid.

So let’s say my parents and my sisters are comfortable for the rest of their lives, I’ve seen the world, and I’ve built up an international reputation, how will I keep myself busy? Or maybe I should go further and ask, what shall I do to give meaning to my life?

I then thought of another movie where some suburban fellows from a big city reckon it will do them good to chase some cattle across the plains. During this adventure, they meet an old cowboy. One of the city folk, who is also contemplating the Big Question, thinks an old cattle man ought to know the answer. The latter ponders for a moment, then raises a single finger in the air. “One thing,” he says. The city guy waits with bated breath for the rest of the answer. When the rancher fails to finish his sentence, he asks him what the one thing is. “You’ve got to figure that out for yourself,” the old man replies.

My own views made me comfortable with the idea, so my sights have increasingly been set on identifying a single thing. In fact, the One Thing Theory has become an almost dogmatic part of my thought processes on the Higher Questions of Life. I was convinced that, whatever the answer, it can only be one thing.

By the time I went to bed (at about half past four), I had an idea: to start a business that sells documentaries, music videos, travel programs and films on DVD, maybe a mail order business so that I don’t have to sit in a store every day of the week. This would cover my interests in history, music, movies and current affairs. I also thought if I had to tell people this is my ambition, the goal I want to pursue, they would find it acceptable; it would sound like the kind of response they would want to give if anyone asked them about their goals and ambitions. We all know people who go on endlessly about a restaurant they want to open, or a coffee shop or a bookstore, even a shoe store. Few of us are in the habit of laughing in the faces of people with such ambitions, and we rarely think their dreams are ridiculous. Such ambitions make sense. They will have something to keep them busy most of the time, and they will probably enjoy being in an industry that serves good food, or they will find it pleasing to stay up to date on the most commercially successful books of the day. And everyone knows this kind of ambition, if successful, will generate income for the owners and their families.

The notion of sufficient capital to fund whatever you want to do had thus brought a preliminary answer. Hoping that the answer would hold until brunch, I drifted off, dreaming of shelves filled with documentaries, music videos and other interesting items.


Next part: The purpose of my life – part one (b)


A most important lesson


People respect power.

People respect financial power, that everyone knows, but they also respect the power of other abilities: the ability to attract other people to them, the ability to fix a car, the ability to manipulate a musical instrument in a masterful way, just to name a few.

Take, for example, the talented guitar player who can entertain friend or stranger for hours on end with his melodies. It is possible that this guy may not be extremely interested in making money. Let’s say except for the part-time work he does during the day (which impresses no one), he also plays in bars and coffee shops a few nights of the week. He makes enough money to pay for his sparse apartment, and he can afford the most essential groceries (and every now and then new guitar strings). This guy will probably never be rich. His intention is to entertain or inspire people with his music, no matter how small or how big the audience is. That the respect that will come his way will multiply if he can play guitar well and make lots of money doing it, is to some extent irrelevant. People will respect him for being able to do something that most people can not do – to press and pull guitar strings in such a way as to fill the air with enjoyable sounds.

What sort of ability commands respect from people? For one, the sort of ability that another person has desired to master for a long time, but one they have not been able to master. To then see someone else who has mastered that very same ability be rewarded with other people’s respect, will intensify their desire to claim the power of that ability for themselves.

Respect determines your place in society. To not be respected means that you will be treated as a zero on the proverbial contract. On the other hand, to be respected for something for which you want to be respected, means that people will want to associate with you. When people see that others want to associate with you, you will usually be treated with more respect, which in turn will strengthen your sense of self-worth and belonging. Not to be respected reduces your sense of self-worth. This reduced sense of self-worth then increases the likelihood that your public appearance will make a weak impression on people, in which case people will find even less reason to respect you. These unflattering appearances also have the undesirable effect that you feel even less that you belong somewhere, which will undermine your self-esteem even further. That the cycle is vicious, is fairly clear.

People respect power – the ability to do something they, themselves, want to do, but which they have not mastered yet, or one they believe they never will master. This is an insight that has haunted me for years. It is indeed one of the most valuable lessons I have learned during the past more than a decade of my adult existence.


To be remembered


Tradition was a hallmark of the high school where I spent my teenage years. And as it befits a school priding themselves on tradition, photographs of six decades of first rugby teams hung in a place where every young boy would be confronted with the possibility of his own face against that same wall. Sometimes, if you were curious enough and you had time, you could pause for a few minutes at a photo to put names to faces. If one had this opportunity, you’d notice a strange term appearing here and there, among all the John Steyns and Louis Bothas: “Another One”. I could never figure out how it could happen that the names of these guys were somehow forgotten, for they must surely have had names! This notion that not everyone was remembered, stuck with me.

A person is born, and as time goes by, he begins to discover the world he lives in. He starts learning how things work, what he must do to survive, what he shouldn’t do to stay out of trouble, and what is generally expected of him. Eventually this person realizes that everyone is, to some degree, like him; as he is, to some extent, like everyone else. Everybody eats, wears clothes, brushes teeth, gets angry sometimes, laughs and speaks in languages that most people in the vicinity understand. He realizes if he wants to survive and stay out of trouble he should follow the example set by others. He should fit in with his surroundings. He must try to be like other people who are part of his world.

As life is, at some point he also becomes acquainted with the phenomenon that people die. He sees, and possibly experiences, the great grief: people crying, and an atmosphere that hangs over the house that he has never before encountered. This young person can certainly not be blamed if he thinks this is how things are going to be from now on – a member of the family has died, and no one will ever see him or her again. But, the weeks and months pass, and he realizes that his mother and father have again started laughing every time the dog does something funny, and the lawn still gets mowed every other Saturday. The life of this youngster also continues in a way similar to his life before the Big Event.

These occurrences make a deep impression on the young child: Someone who had always been there, was one day no longer there, and life continued.

The same thing might happen again – this time a grandmother or grandfather or an uncle or aunt, perhaps even someone who had been running around on the playground with him the other day. The same drama plays itself out again: people cry, whispered conversations, and the silence that muffles even the dog’s barking. But once again it does not escape the child’s attention that the adults still go to work every day and every evening the family still eats dinner – just like before.

The impression that people die and that the world continues without them – like a train that offloads passengers before continuing its journey – is entrenched in this youngster’s mind.

At this point, it’s only a matter of time before the child realizes that he, too, will someday not be here anymore. And as with all the others who have died, the world will also continue without him. Then, too, someone will read the news on TV, someone will crack a joke somewhere, and all the dogs in the neighbourhood will continue barking at anything that moves during the night.

As the child grows older, he’s also exposed to the names of people long dead, but for some reason remembered. In one community, it’s Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.; in another, Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe; and in yet another part of the world, Bruce Lee or Mao Zedong. The child realizes that there are some people who didn’t just die to be forgotten after a while. He realizes some people do things during their lifetime that causes them to be remembered. They’re remembered in school books, in magazines, in newspapers and on TV. Perhaps they’re preached about Sunday in church. Someone might talk about them on TV or around a campfire. And he may read in a magazine how people still celebrate their favourite singer’s birthday decades after his death.

The child looks at himself and at those around him, and the time comes when he wonders where he fits into this Hierarchy of the Remembered. Will his face someday appear on stamps? Will people still remember his birthday, years after he had died? Will his name still be mentioned in the occasional conversation?

The average person knows he or she is important to a small group of people. They know the woman who reads the news on TV won’t shed any tears when they die, but their parents and siblings will certainly be sad for at least a few months. For some people that is enough – to know they will be remembered by a small but significant group of people. Others hope at least a few hundred people will one day pitch up at their farewell party. And then there are people who won’t lost any time thinking about these things, but whose funeral will bring an entire city – even an entire nation – to a standstill.

On one side of the spectrum, we have the man who was a capable leader, perhaps the hero of a political revolution, whose ideas will still be studied centuries after his physical demise. This man may have co-produced a few children who may have given him many grandchildren and great grandchildren. The man on this side of the spectrum may die at an old age surrounded by his large family. His ideas and his well-documented words and deeds will live on in institutions, libraries, and as part of people’s general knowledge. On the other side of the spectrum we have a man who had no brothers or sisters, he never married, never had any children and not many people called him a friend. He never wrote any books, never produced any musical hits, never built anything, and never designed or invented anything that would still be useful long after his death.

The one person’s name will live on. He will be remembered. The other guy will be remembered as … just another one. People would later refer to him as the one who worked in Capacity X in Office Y, or as the man who lived in the Red House. Ten years after his death not many people will still remember his name.

Many of us cherish a desire to be remembered for things that we value. But is this anything more than a quest to feel good about ourselves? Some would say it is precisely this desire that drives humans to do things never done before, or to accomplish something that requires a lot of hard work and dedication – something that will ultimately have value for more people than just a single individual wanting to feel good about him- or herself.

What is it that makes people seek recognition? Why do people hope to be remembered long after their seats on the train had become cold?

Whatever it is, it drives people forward. It drives them to break new ground, and sometimes to give hope when others need it most. It motivates people to acquire skills that put them in unique positions; to improve their own lives and perhaps also the lives of everyone around them, as well as those who will come after them. Unfortunately, this quest for recognition is also the fire that drives people to unleash wars, and to destroy rather than to build.

Let there be consensus: let those who deserve it, be rewarded with a postage stamp after their death, and let their birthdays be remembered. And let the names of those who seek fame in destructive ways (and in some tragic cases find it) be remembered as the result of the dark side that sometimes overwhelm the light.

Shall we say seeking recognition is a good thing then, as long as it produces a mostly positive legacy? To thus be remembered for a good contribution – whether a heroic deed or a life of devotion to a good cause.

Each one of us is ultimately confronted with questions: Where in this Hierarchy of Being Remembered do you fit in? Where do you want to fit in? And finally, for what do you want to be remembered?


Icarus journal, entries # 13 ~ 15


# 13

Life is a struggle – a struggle for a higher existence. Your daily life is a series of actions and choices that result in you either advancing to an improved existence, or where you increasingly go backwards. Every position in which you find yourself at any given period of your life is either better or worse, or the same as before (in terms of what you experience with your senses, not necessarily in philosophical terms or even physiological terms). The concrete meaning of this higher existence varies from person to person. The process of defining your specific Higher Existence is part of your struggle.

# 14

The meaning of life lies in this pursuit, this struggle to do better, to attain a higher level of existence.

To learn anything regarding universal truth, start by searching within yourself. Look yourself in the mirror and ask yourself questions. Get to know yourself and you will begin to understand the truths of life.

Is it not true that a person, without necessarily thinking about it, is constantly changing things and trying to do things better once he or she discovers a particular way of doing things is causing them harm, or fails to bring them fulfilment, or is simply not good enough to bring an endeavour to successful completion? Of course, you get people who continually make the same mistakes. Their struggle will inevitably be much longer and much more difficult.

* * *

A man sits on his porch smoking a cigarette. He’s contemplating life and asks himself The Question. He has long since abandoned the doctrines of his youth, and now looks at his own life experiences and all the knowledge he has gained so far to see if that can offer him any answers. He will find it: in his own experience, the knowledge he has acquired, in himself, and in other people. For just as he searches, from the essence of his nature and driven by his instincts, so others are searching, as well.

Perhaps no one has perfect knowledge, but listen to a hundred people, and you will receive a hundred pieces of information that form part of the whole. Many pieces of knowledge will overlap, and there are many people who simply recite what they have been taught. Then there are libraries filled with books written by people generations or centuries ago, who had some degree of knowledge of the Truth, even though this knowledge has become obscure or has even been lost and forgotten over many generations.

Sometimes you’ll find someone – through a personal encounter, or by reading a story or an article or a news bulletin, or by watching a movie or listening to someone’s music – who has contemplated his or her own experiences for long enough to have obtained what can be called More Profound Knowledge. In the same way, if he is sincere in his search, the man on the porch will also find peace about the meaning of his particular life.

# 15

I do not know about “God”. This does not mean I do not believe in “God”. All I’m saying is that everything I thought I knew about “God” has been given to me by people. At one stage in my life, it became clear that many of these people were either not worthy of my trust in what they had to say, or that they had simply told me what had been told to them, which they had decided to believe for their own personal reasons.

Fact is, I have never seen “God” – if “God” can be seen in the conventional understanding of the word – so I have to settle for other people’s opinions or doctrines about “God”. The problem? These people have also never seen “God”! They simply believe what they have been taught to believe. Or they base their belief on a combination of what they’ve been taught and their own personal experiences – which still means this person’s truth is subjective.

Another thing: knowledge – or “truth” – that is carried over from one generation to the next does not even always remain the same! Cultural practices change; the world in which we live sometimes undergoes profound change; when these things happen, subtle alterations are made to doctrines and personal beliefs.

So I’m not saying I do not believe in “God”, I’m just saying I do not know about “God”. I know what others think they know, but I cannot believe in something just because others believe in it. I must seek the truth on my own time and in my own way.


New insights, February 1999

Monday, 15 February 1999

To be free and independent, I have written more than once in the past few months, is my great ideal. Superficially considered, it was about not having any financial obligations to any creditors. But it stretched deeper than that: I did not want to have any obligations. My ideal life was that of a bachelor, a “Steppenwolf”. No commitment, no obligations – to anyone.

About a year ago I identified “commitment” and “belonging” as fundamentally sound ideas, even for myself. What I did not realise was that I had two horses in the race. And I tried to ride both. I wanted to belong and commit, but I also wanted to be free and independent. What I did not apparently understand at first was that you cannot commit yourself to something whilst crying “Freedom!”, that you can’t belong somewhere and simultaneously suggest that you are independent.

The idea of a family of my own was never something I could work into my ideal lifestyle of freedom and independence. Now, this wouldn’t have been a problem if I weren’t yearning so much after these basic joys of life.

It dawned on me that to love a woman and to raise children with her would be much more of a restriction on my freedom and independence than the obligation of owing some banks some money.

When I realised this, it was like a weight being lifted off my shoulders. I felt relieved. I could relax because at that moment I knew that total freedom and independence were not what I wanted! If this was what I had wanted to achieve, it was possible! It’s not an illusion. It’s not a dream that can never be fulfilled. It’s a dream I don’t want! It’s a path that I would never have wanted to walk to its endpoint, because I wouldn’t have been committed to anything, and I wouldn’t have belonged anywhere. And I want to commit myself to something. I want to dedicate myself to something. I want to strive for something, and I want to feel I belong somewhere.

In Johannesburg I wouldn’t easily have gained this insight because there freedom and independence were concrete short-term ideals, even desires, that I had confused with an ideal life. I needed to come to Taiwan to realise that if I wanted to be free and independent, it is doable; it is an ideal that can be realised. I had to know that it is a life that I can pursue and achieve, if that was indeed what I wanted to do. But it is not.

Of course I still want to pay off my debts as soon as possible. I hate living under the sword of debt. I believe that to owe someone money is to be that person’s slave. It’s not the same as loving someone and fulfilling a financial obligation to that person out of love.

In financial terms, I still want to be free and independent. But I also want to achieve a different ideal – I want to belong somewhere. I want a home in the full sense of the word. I want to love a woman and be loved by her.

To finish off this notebook then, which first tasted ink ten months ago in Stellenbosch and that experienced Johannesburg with me, the following: I want to commit myself to an ideal the realisation of which has already begun, namely to be a writer. And I want to love and be loved, and thus belong somewhere.

I am committed. And one day, I will also belong.