XII. Live & Learn

The Stages of Life by

Caspar David Friedrich


“Only by bending can you be whole; only by twisting can you be straight. Only by hollowing can you be full; only by being used up can you be new. Only by reducing can you obtain; only by having excess can you be tempted. For this reason, the Sage embraces the One so as to be the pointer of all under heaven. He does not reveal himself; therefore he shines brightly. He does not affirm himself; therefore he radiates out. He does not appropriate to himself; therefore he achieves. He does not magnify himself, therefore he increases. It is because he does not compete that, therefore, under heaven there is none that can compete with him.”[1]

~ From the Tao Dejing

Life is short and time is swift. Man’s life is like a candle in the wind, like hoar-frost on the tiles.[2] Life is but a shadow. It is but a fleeting image, as illusive as a dream and as mysterious as a phantom in the dark. We live sometimes with the intensity of industry so hectic that some of us have never stopped to wonder what our journey through life is really all about. Whether there is meaning to our toils and labor. After we subtract the time that we spend working, resting and finding sustenance, most of us are not left with time for anything else under the sun.

What does life means to us? Any grown man with the slightest amount of time to self-reflect would know that two things are certain and inevitable in his course of life. The first is change. Whether it is the rising or setting of the sun, the aging of our bodies or the changing of seasons, change is there to stay as long as we still draw breath. The second is death. Every man that lives knows that he will eventually die. Our bodies will one day return to dust and ash to be swept away into sands of time. The life we live, our mere existence in this world, is just temporary and impermanent. As with all living and sentient beings, we will eventually disappear from the world of the living and we would not be able to bring with us anything to keep us company into a world unknown.

Death strikes such fear into our hearts. Imagine our existence dissipating into thin air like some magic trick. We know not what awaits us. Whether emptiness, eternal solitude, the flames of hell. But death is certain and so we find ourselves asking yet again, ‘what does life mean to us?’ ‘What are we searching for?’ Every man dies; but not every man really lives.[3] Life is half spent before we know what it is! There is no meaning to a life that is not remembered. A man who has lost his memories has also lost his identity. If people do not remember us, it would be the same as though we have never existed. The sad truth about our existence is that ‘to be is to be perceived.’[4] Without the perceiver, whether one’s own self or others, the object in contemplation also ceases to exist.

Some believe that the joys and sadness of a human’s life lies in our own consciousness. Human beings are the only organisms known in the world to be able to contemplate our own deaths and the end of our existence. We strive to give ourselves a reason for being other than the one that nature has given us, namely, to survive and the maximize life. For once we have assured ourselves of our own survival, we realize that we can never be satisfied. We want love, wealth, power, glory, and everlasting fame. But we forget that we can bring none of this into the realms of the underworld. Wealth, power, glory and fame amounts to nothing when a life ends. Even Midas traded his touch of gold for dear life itself!

Because we know that in death we would lose all our earthly possessions, mankind has strived above all to obtain the elixir of life. The secret of immortality has been in the hearts of men throughout every age. Man in their hearts wish for the power of the Creator. To be absolutely free from all mortal limits and to be chained no more to a temporary existence. For this reason, the first man called Adam was banished from the Garden of Eden when he defied God by wanting to eat the fruit from the Tree of Life. Similarly, the ultimate reward of the hero the ancient Greece, Hercules, was granted a seat in Olympus as a God after finishing his twelve labors and enduring many trials and hardships.

It is because of the promise of immortality that religion holds such sway in the minds of men. Most religions promise the ability to live forever or to cheat death or to be removed from the cycles of life and death. It is a promise to the faithful and diligent to prolong their existence far beyond the lives of other men. To make their existence permanent and not just a temporary confinement in the land of the living. Many of us want freedom, in our lives, in our choices, in our hopes and dreams. But above all else, we want to have freedom from death. For this reason and this reason alone, men would do anything. He would succumb to any ritual, any rite, any belief, any understanding and any faith. But in his hopes for attaining freedom from death, he finds that he has bound himself with unbreakable chains. That instead of freedom, he lives now in fear, the fear of death.

How then should one live? Should one live by strict moral conduct? By always doing what duty demands of us or by contributing to the general welfare of the society we find ourselves in? Or should one do what it takes to gain human fulfillment? To do the things that one thinks is worthwhile and give our own meaning to our own life? Is not life a pilgrimage? Is not life a journey towards enlightenment and the freedom from trouble or anxiety?

Human fulfillment is too shallow a purpose for a life well lived. Life is understanding.[5] It is the pursuit of new knowledge and new frontiers. It is the pursuit of not only happiness and freedom from pain and want for oneself but the pursuit of new intellectual and physical boundaries for the entire human species. Life is learning and with learning we grow. With each discovery of something new to us, we rekindle the bright and burning flame of wonder. And to stare amazed and enthralled by our every discovery gives us not only hope for a better future but the strength to step forth with confidence into every different day.

A life of learning is no simple path. There is no royal road to learning.[6] To learn not is to know not. If life is a pilgrimage, it is a pilgrimage of learning. But as Soren Kierkegaard put is, ‘life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.[7]’ The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.[8] And there can be no greater use of life than learning so as to contribute to the development of world and every sentient being within it. Learning is lifelong. Learning is our greatest duty. And when the day comes that all of us knows this to be true, it would be the day that our souls awake and spread its wings to ascend to new heights.

“The ancients who wishes to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom, first ordered well their own States. Wishing to order well their States, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost of their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families regulated. Their families being regulated, their States rightly governed. Their States being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of people, all must consider the cultivation of person the root of everything.”

~ From the Great Learning

[1] Adapted from Chapter 22 of the Tao Dejing.

[2] A Chinese saying.

[3] A quote from William Wallace.

[4] Esse est percipi, a quote from Berkeley.

[5] Quote attributed to Marcus Aurelius.

[6] Based on the reply given by Euclid (c.300BC) to Ptolemy I, when he asked if there was a quick and easy way to master the science of geometry.

[7] Quote attributed to Soren Kierkegaard.

[8] Quote attributed to William James.

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