What do you live for? If you’ve never contemplated this question you’re like most people in western society — and it’s time to change it.
And I don’t just mean briefly thinking about it for an interview or for a first date.
I mean truly wrestling with this question. What really gets you out of bed in the morning? What, if anything, would you die for?
Without consciously defining what you live for, most people end up deferring to culture on this answer. In this regard, they’re like non player characters (NPCs) in video games, that are robotically programmed by the video game industry (society writ large).
Well, I’m not going to sugar coat it (Literally, I will not put sugar on anything).
A life deferring to modern culture on what to value is a life doomed to misery. Why? Because modern culture is bankrupt in the wisdom department.
And now, as a result, everybody has forgotten how to live a good life. Nobody has a grand vision of what they truly live for.
But on a much more provincial level, everybody has forgotten all the basic concerns too:
- How to eat
- How to be happy
- How to find meaning
- How to be fulfilled
- How to live a good life
- How to be a good citizen
- How to love
How did this happen and what’s the way out? Let me explain.
It’s time to suck out all the marrow from life….
You Are Screwed
At least I was before I realized this.
Everybody today faces an impossible predicament.
You’ve been catapulted into this world (literally shot out of a human body) without an instruction manual.
You’re totally lost and helpless.
But realizing this is the path to liberation.
For 9 months you grew inside of a human body….then all of a sudden you were expected to figure sh*t out on your own.
It’s almost like you woke up in a ferrari going 100 miles an hour headed for a cliff and you’re expected to stop the car.
But you have no clue what a ferrari even is…you don’t even know what a car is. You don’t know what a cliff is and you sure as hell don’t know what a brake is. You don’t even know that you’re a human being…You just feel sensations…and you’re not even sure if you like them or dislike them…
Ancient societies had guardrails for you and teachers to give you that human operating manual. However, over the last few 100 years we’ve torn all those to shreds.
Instead, western society teaches you (explicitly and implicitly through nudges) to go all in on consumeristic, hedonistic individualism.
There are no institutions to guide you to live a good life post birth…Most people peak in terms of happiness while they’re in the womb…
Almost like learning how to manage money from a homeless person, every single institution is incompetent today.
Today, the overarching assumption is that a life of consumption and pleasure as a maximally free and atomic individual will be the best. But that vision has unequivocally failed.
Everybody is burnt out from thinking about themselves and the next dopamine hit all day. Don’t you feel it?
And when someone feels pain, instead of questioning the basic axioms of their lives, most people just hustle on even faster when any discomfort appears.
Like zombies modern humans use work, shopping and drugs to numb their pain away all while thinking that more work or different shopping or will solve their issues. The work causes the pain, for instance, then they work even more to numb it. It’s like a hair of the dog perpetual motion machine.
It’s Time to Wake Up
From this perspective, the turmoil in the world right now may be the best thing for those open to changing. Because coronavirus is starting to reveal some of the absurdities of life.
Here’s the truth that I realized (and that the coronavirus turmoil helped bring to a head): I have absolutely no clue how to live my life and what a good life truly is. I don’t even know what a human being really is on a fundamental level. Nor do I know what I’m doing on this earth.
All I know is that more money, consumption and pleasure isn’t going to fill a deep existential void. That screaming at people online about the politics and news is a complete waste of life.
But it goes even deeper than that. I think a life focused on pleasure is also a life wasted. Because you end up trading your contentment 99% of the time for a fleeting sense of “being a rockstar” 1% of the time.
Whereas there truly is a deeper, abiding sense of equanimity and happiness out there. It just takes a complete transformation.
This realization…and WTF moment…that you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing with your life is what the Greeks called aporia. It’s painful, but necessary to change your life.
This opening has allowed me to explore what it means to truly live a good and meaningful life. And let me tell you, as fun as Twitter and Netflix are, they are not the answers.
Even more interesting for our society today, I don’t think completely dogmatic, secular atheism is the answer either (which I once was…).
All I know now is that I know what the answer isn’t…I’ve tasted the real answer, but definitely haven’t fully swallowed and digested it yet.
Let me explain more about what it tastes like…
The Meaning Crisis + Three Forms of Depression
First, let me talk about three different forms of depression I see.
Most people today think that you’re either clinically depressed or you’re happy. But the truth is that most people lie somewhere in between both categories.
It’s a hard truth, but the fact of the matter is that nobody is as happy as they could be. In fact, whatever you’re doing today is probably wrong.
Yes, if you’re here, you’re definitely closer to the “correct path” than many others. You’re playing chess to win the game, not to just accumulate pawns like most people, for instance.
But, if you’re like most people, you feel a weird underlying sense that something is off. Almost like you’re driving a bike with a wobbly wheel.
However, instead of fixing the root cause — adjusting the damn wobbly wheel — you’re trying to bike even faster to make it go away….
Sure, you have moments here and there that you enjoy. Like the last time you went skiing or surfing.
But here in this moment…this second right now…something is off. And no, it’s not my writing.
In fact, you’re probably using this article to distract you from that feeling that something is off.
Well, you’re not alone. I think that everybody in western society is experiencing some form of this. Let me explain.
There are three main types of depression pervasive in society today that I want to touch on. All are related, but need to be disentangled.
The first is the most obvious: people who cannot get out of the bed in the morning and feel like they’re carrying the world’s weight on their shoulders. This form of depression is fairly novel and is related to the next two I describe below, but also has some idiosyncratic causes. This type often needs to leverage medication to kickstart some changes.
The next two are less widely recognized and even more pervasive.
The second group of people are those who feel that something is constantly off or lacking…in the buddhist sense.
The first truth of buddhism is life is suffering. This seems trivial at first…
There’s death. Pandemic. Sickness. Depression. Sure.
But it’s much deeper than that.
Mental illness isn’t the only suffering there is.
The suffering that Buddhists refer to is the abiding sense of dissatisfaction I discussed above. The feeling of lack. The feeling that your life would be better if you got something else. The constant sense that you can’t just sit back and relax.
Almost everybody feels this…Even people who consider themselves happy.
It’s like driving a bike with a deflated tire…something is off.
But the truth is that the external thing you want will only perpetuate that feeling of lack even further. External things cannot solve internal issues. The challenge is that western society tells you the exact opposite…
You need the girl. The job. The promotion. The car. The 6 pack to be happy. But that is a lie.
Erich Fromm wrote a great book on having vs being. The gist is that humans have being needs like to be loved or to be mature. But too often you try to solve your being needs by having an object. Instead of being loved, you try to accumulate a lot of possessions. Instead of being mature you buy the right clothes.
Advertisers prey on this false equivalency by positioning beautiful women next to a car, for instance. This tricks your brain into thinking that you need to have a nice car to be loved, but this is not the case.
When people feel this dukkha, they tend to grasp for whatever quick hit of pleasure is nearby.
But your brain is terrible at determining what is best for you over the long run. Instead, like velcro, it will just latch on to whatever feels best in any given moment. Then, almost like a song is stuck in your head, it will train you with thoughts to keep coming back to that same thing.
This samsaric wheel is like a merry go round that steals happiness from you every time you go around it.
However, the real truth is that absolutely nothing is preventing you from being absolutely content right here and now. Even if you’re eating the worst tasting beef liver in the world, reading vegan tweets and sitting on shards of glass.
The challenge is that it requires an immense amount of training. And modern society is woefully unequipped to teach you how to find real happiness.
The third form of depression is a deeper nihilism from a lack of meaning.
Some of these people are very clearly depressed and feel that there’s no reason to live in this meaningless void…
Others may present themselves as gregarious and happy. But really they’re nihilistic in the sense that they have no real reason for existence. Deep down, they don’t really know why they’re doing anything.
They’re like tornados, simply blown about consuming everything in sight. They can only envision the world as disconnected, dispassionate atoms to be manipulated for their own advantage.
A very wide range of people fall into this category. Everything from the person that lives for work and thinks it’s their purpose…throwing off anything else that’s higher to the secular atheist that worships their body.
Living without any sense of something higher is a form of dis-ease and dissatisfaction.
This group of people range also includes the devoted social justice warriors who desperately need something to believe in. Lastly, it includes self improvement die hards. And frankly, this was me for most of my life until I realized that constant obsession with improving myself was itself another form of idolization and dissatisfaction.
It’s not necessarily that these people are always miserable. But just that they’re not living as fulfilling of a life as they could be.
This is what John Vervaeke calls the meaning crisis (his youtube series is incredible if you’re interested in learning more about this).
We Need a Human Operating Manual & Cohesive System to Live a Good Life
Why is everybody so depressed today?
Because modern society is pretty good at solving the first form of depression, but absolutely miserable at the second and third form (and once you cure the first form you probably are in the second or third bucket).
And I think a lot of it has to do with religion…
As Nietszche foresaw, the death of god would bring some benefits…but would also leave a tremendous void.
What does that mean? I’m not saying that traditional judeo-christian monotheism is the answer…but without religion, humans are left without a system to find true meaning and fulfillment in the world.
However, to truly flourish people need institutions and a system to help:
– Ground them in the world
– Explain what the world is
– Teach us who we are
– Instruct us how to act morally
– Give them a sense of belonging
Together, all of these things can help you transcend yourself, give you meaning and achieve a shared telos. All components of the recipe for the good life.
To be as happy and fulfilled as you can be, you need some sense of enlightenment, real meaning in your life and a real telos or purpose. Nothing in modern society gives you those things. In fact, they often pull you further away from them.
Many of these things religion provided and no longer do today.
But modernity, like a religion, still promises to save you from your anxiety and ills, but is a complete fantasy.
We’ve gone all in on progress, but it’s progress directed towards the wrong goals.
Accelerating the gas pedal like we are today, is like accelerating a car towards a cliff…
If two people are walking the wrong way, the one who stops first actually makes the most progress.
This is what we need.
A fundamental turning around of reality. A kairotic experience. A completely new vision for society and human flourishing.
Once you realize this, your life will never be the same.
Your ancestors knew that life was more than just eating, drinking & having sex and created things like myths, religions, philosophies and rituals to instill that wisdom in people. They outsourced this to the cultural layer because they realized that this wasn’t just innate. Unfortunately human beings don’t come out of the womb yet in a meditation pose with the wisdom it takes to live a good life…
But pretty much all of that wisdom has been extirpated from society over the last few 100 years.
There used to be a human operating manual. But it was burned to ashes. Like after a wild fire we can scavenge a few of the remains. There’s a page here and there about meat I think I found…There’s another about community and love. But there’s nothing cohesive.
We’re stumbling around in the dark putting together a manual that was burnt to crisps.
Can it be resuscitated? I think so.
How to Start Living a Good Life
The first step is figuring out what you live for.
Humans are inherently “good” seeking organisms. When you take action, you’re searching out some good whether or not you’ve defined it.
The problem is that if you don’t define it yourself, others will for you.
Nothing in society teaches you how to define your good and to actually live it.
Instead, people just assume that checking a few boxes makes you a good individual. For instance, posting a black square on instagram makes you a good person who’s not racist.
But living a good life isn’t just doing one-off disjointed activities.
Just because you’re kim kardashian and you help people get out of jail doesn’t make you a good person.
In an Aristotletelian sense, there’s no telos any longer or understanding of human beings as those that need to work for a shared common good.
Instead, that shared good has been exchanged for new, decrepit gods, such as the god of the Dow Jones.
Most of the people who aren’t visibly clinically depressed are treated with modern cultural palliatives and the false gods I mentioned above…
For all the good of the market and these other quasi religions (like social justice warfare, for instance) the have subsumed every aspect of life and become totalizing. But they cannot provide true equanimity and salvation (if I can use that word) like religions traditionally did.
Where religion promises to save you with God, modernity promises to with other things…
One of the biggest sins in religion is idolization because they foresaw the despair if you idolize a false god. That’s exactly what we’re left with with the marketplace. Dollar signs cannot tell you what to pursue in life. And it definitely cannot give you the three things I’ll discuss below that you need to live a good life.
Depression, loneliness and nihilism are skyrocketing. And the only answer we’re getting is to push down on the gas pedal…
Depressed? It’s because you aren’t given the same “job opportunities”.
Miserable? Make more money.
Kids? Send them to the best college possible and they’re set for life…
Opioid crisis? More jobs!
This is the totalization of the market at work….
Every debate, injustice and life decision is couched in terms of the market.
But, it should be obvious now, living for money cannot make you happy. Money is a means to an end. The ends are what matters.
This is part of the reason why the feminism movement has been so destructive. It presupposes that all people want is more income & job opportunities.
And one of the main problems with this is that assuming a life of wealth is the good life forecloses other potential paths.
The challenge is that humans are wired to be attracted to money, like how a barracuda is attracted to a shiny object. We needed mechanisms to check these innate status driven proclivities. But society has ripped them all out.
And there’s no longer any mechanism to teach people that there are other things to live for.
How to Break Free
This brings us to the most important question:
The most important question in your life is not how much beef liver you’ll eat today…or what vegetable you’ll toss in the trash.
It is how to live a good life.
To break free, you need practices that help you realize your true human nature in the Aristotlelian sense. You need some deeper sense of meaning. And you need to renounce your sense of self (this is where I’m going to get a bit buddhist on you…). But all of western society rejects these premises.
You are born flawed and without the right practices your base desires and passions will ensure that you stay flawed.
Psychology isn’t something independent of daily life. Your telos is your life. You can’t just expect to sit in a therapist’s office for an hour a day and solve your issues.
If you want to change how you feel on a day to day basis, your way of being in the world needs to look completely different than it does today.
You can’t just paint a picture. You need to become a painter. The two are very different.
Society today is awash in bullshit that will ensure that you become addicted, miserable and poor. We’ve constructed a society that idolizes income and consumption above all else, and in turn subordinates your true desires and purposes.
It’s a culture that relegates the ultimate good to the background and instead elevates your base desires to the top of the hierarchy.
We’ve essentially let children take over the classroom. And instead of teaching in this demented school, it’s built around giving the children all the candy and tikTok time they want.
Society is constructed around the lowest base desires instead of the higher.
You will not be happy if you follow everything society tells you to do.
You have multiple psyches…a comfort addicted, greedy, inner b*tch and a spiritual , cosmic, beautiful soul that’s looking to shine. Without the proper training, the former will win out every single time.
Everything your inner loser thinks it wants will ultimately make you miserable. This isn’t just some religious nonsense. It’s empirically true. Even the richest, most successful people have the fullest medicine cabinets…
How much more evidence do you need that everything western society tells you that you want is incorrect?
Before he sculpted it, the David was already in the block of marble. But it required substantial work to reveal.
The key insight is that human nature as it stands is not good. You need ethical precepts and a guide to achieve that goodness — this is what I refer to as the operating manual.
And because human nature isn’t indeed good, this means that the operating manual must go against your human nature. Therefore, becoming a good human being isn’t something that just naturally happens like a tree growing with enough rain…It requires you to fight your instincts and find your proper path.
The west has won life. Every comfort imaginable is available at the click of a button. But not only are people still miserable…they’re more miserable than ever.
We live in the age of nihilism. People that have all the trappings of success…everything they could possibly imagine…yet fuller medicine cabinets than ever before in history.
People have no real reason to live…instead modern domesticated humans are chasing a carrot on the stick with no idea where they’re going.
“You should work hard”. “You should be educated” “You should be healthy”. Sure. But why?\
You’re being shepherded towards a cliff and pillaged for all your wealth & happiness along the way…
Why are you doing anything that you do on a daily basis. What is your life all about?
First, with figuring out your telos — i.e. what you live for.
Then, putting in place daily practices.
Lastly, with giving some beef liver to a vegan.
More to come on this. Sign up below to join me on this journey.