Life’s Paradox

What makes our lives valuable and fulfilled? Consciously or unconsciously, we have noticed that life is what we are supposed to possess and take care of it by ourselves. That is why we call life “my life,” “your life,” “his or her life,” or “their lives.” Life looks as if an object that we should handle in one way or another.

It seems like some property that can last for years and decades. On average, one’s life can last for seventy to eighty years. Or, if we’re lucky enough, it could be for ninety or one hundred years. Or else, we have also witnessed that one’s life lasted only for a short period. For example, a newborn baby passed away after experiencing a glimpse of his or her life.

Another example is that some young men and women encountered the tragedy that they had to end their lives before fulfilling their dreams. For some, the unfortunate accident takes their lives. Still, for some, it’s so painful, but they terminate their lives by themselves.

Is it unfair that our lives are so different depending on who’s properties and possessions? How can we understand such a difference? How should we accept it? What is life on earth and in heaven?

Such understanding of life is from our perception of spacetime. We tend to think that life should locate in a specific position of time and space. Thus, the place of birth is essential for our identities. The place we spend our lives is also crucial. As we can see the engraved letters on the tombs, the age of how long we lived is one of the primary attributes of life.

When we think of life, the fundamental questions are when, where, how long, or how short. Life is the specificity of spacetime — the limited points located on the seemingly unlimited coordinate axis. And each location seems to have its property. Life is always someone’s possession. Is that so?

Because of this sense of possession, we tend to fall into the trap of endless comparisons of one another’s life. Is my life better than yours? Is it better than those in the past? How about people in the future? Will their lives become better than ours? Is life short or long? Which one is luckier? These comparisons are endless. And, quite often, these are the source of our sufferings.

Is life a gift?

Considering it as a gift from someone, we always compare ours with others’, saying mine is better than yours, or yours is better than mine, etc. We even admire or envy others’. We also define our success, depending on the value of the gifts that belong to us. We are like children who fight with one another over the possession and importance of them. Even we complain against those who give us gifts. When we say life is suffering, the tragedy or perhaps comedy is that the statement implies such a childish fight over one another’s Christmas gifts, spoiling their happy Christmas party due to their silly quarrels.

Life is a gift. But it is not the kind that satisfies our sense of possession. Receiving a gift from someone, can we still complain about the gift’s quality compared with others? Perhaps, we do sometimes. But we know this behavior is stupid and rude. But then, when it comes to life as a gift, we always demonstrate such childish behavior.

What is the purpose of life? Is it to be successful in this world? Again, what makes our lives valuable and fulfilled?

It is undoubtedly essential to succeed on earth because we maximize and develop the talents received as part of life attributes. As the biblical parable teaches us, the servants are supposed to increase their assets during the absence of their master. At the end of their duties, the master will check how much they have raised them. Similarly, we would be happy to see how much we have contributed to our societies and peoples around. That should be part of our life purposes.

Let’s note that this sense of happiness from contributions to societies and peoples should never be self-centered. The delight here is not selfish but rather selfless. Counterintuitively, we can be delighted when we forget ourselves. While our contributions should be significant, the fulfillment is not on this focus that we alone are happy, but rather the outcome that the societies, families, and peoples are delighted. We can be pleased only when we can see others are happy. Ultimately, we are glad when we see He is pleased.

Abraham Maslow has noticed the value of such selfless happiness. That is why, in his later years, he had realized that putting the layer of self-actualization at the top was misleading. It has created a lot of misunderstandings.

Because of the hierarchy Maslow presented, people thought the essential purpose of life is to actualize their dreams. They have forgotten that one can never achieve this layer without fulfilling the lower layers, such as family and social relationships. By paying attention to the hierarchy’s tip alone, they have ended up as a selfish, self-centered personality. In this misinterpretation, the order has become entirely upside down. We have become a constant complainer. What is essential is our feeling, ego, and pride, saying why do I have to oppress it? Why does nobody understand I am important?

The pursuit of self-actualization has suddenly become selfish and childish. Here, the ideology of critical theories has overtaken the position, saying that we cannot achieve our self-actualization because society is unfair and evil. We cannot achieve our dreams unless we destroy the existing social orders and structures.

We need to deconstruct the current traditions as systemic issues. And here, the ideology of relativism has overtaken the position as well. People have believed that they can do anything to achieve their dreams. The main obstacles to attaining goals are always outside, such as our traditions, values, laws, and orders. Even our past histories should be the legacies that we have to delete retrospectively. To be extreme, some tend to think every single obstacle that disturbs their goals should be something evil that they have to delete. The tyranny of totalitarianism is almost out there.

In his later years, Abraham Maslow added another layer on top of self-actualization, which is called self-transcendence. We can find such a layer from the traditional wisdom.

For example, the Buddhist monk Dogen said that to understand life, we must understand the self, and to understand the self, we must forget the self. His statement is from the Buddha’s teaching of non-self that our sufferings are from the possession of our sense of self. As Dogen implied, moreover, it should not start from the non-self in the first place. The definition of self is still essential, which a gift we received together with various attributes like the servants’ assets to manage. If, however, we focus on the self alone in our entire lives, that will entail devastating results, as we are experiencing one way or another in contemporary societies.

Life is our possession as a gift. It is up to us how to handle it. If we don’t know how to handle it, we suffer a lot. Even we would destroy our societies and traditions. It is also essential to improve life by correcting something obsolete or even brutal that used to violate our human rights out of ignorance. As time progresses, we are getting wiser and smarter, I hope. At the same time, however, we also have to check ourselves mindfully and humbly. Is this suffering from the outdated exploitations or our inflated selfishness and self-indulgence?

Life is our possession as a gift. Ultimately, moreover, it is the gift from God – something above and transcendent, as Abraham Maslow added one layer in his later years from self-actualization to self-transcendence. In this shift, we can recall this well-known verse. Let us seek His will each day. And, often, our too many worries about life are from our selfishness.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

Matthew 6:33-34

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter

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