When I first read this quotation from Joseph Campbell, I thought he must be wrong:
“I don’t believe people are looking for the meaning of life as much as they are for the experience of being alive.”
Many years ago, I had read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he says that what we need in life, most of all, is a sense of its meaning, of it being meaningful. And I believed him. I still do, but I think what Campbell says is true as well, in an even more fundamental and primary way.
We search for life’s meaning as intellectual beings, who reflect on our own state. But reflection is secondary: it’s us looking at our own lives, almost as though we stood outside them, and trying to locate a meaning in them. We do that in particular if we have suffered greatly, as Frankl (a concentration camp survivor) had. Finding meaning helps us — to deal with life’s intensity, its unpredictability, even if we have not suffered like Frankl.
But before we are intellectual beings, we are sensual beings, who experience the world by sensing, feeling. And before we look for meaning, we look for the experience of being alive, of feeling the intensity and unpredictability of life. We seek to participate in life itself.
We all want to feel alive.
Why am I making this point? Because it occurred to me, the other day, that we will do almost anything to feel fully alive, even if it hurts us in the process. It doesn’t have to hurt us: the need to feel alive makes us climb mountains, write books. It can result in exploration and adventure and art. So it’s a wonderful thing, a valuable thing. An intensely human thing. But like anything human, it can also cause harm. Recently, I read an article by a drug addict in which he described the need for a high as the need to feel fully and intensely alive — something he could not find in his ordinary life, even though he is a famous performer. It led me to wonder if many of our destructive behaviors could be caused by that perfectly natural need, and our inability to fulfill it in any other way. I don’t have many destructive habits: perhaps my tendency to overwork is the worse of them. That’s a behavior the world rewards, although it can be quite bad for me personally. It means that I sometimes collapse from tiredness, or miss out on aspects of life that could be rewarding. I don’t remember when I last kept up with a television show. But the work I do, both teaching and writing, makes me feel intensely alive, so it’s hard to rest. And I remember that when I was younger and did particularly stupid things (anything involving alcohol and dancing on tables, for instance), it was usually because I needed to feel alive, to feel a certain intensity that’s much easier for me to experience now, when I have more control over my own life. And when I have art.
I think art is probably the safest way to feel fully alive.
Experiencing art, by going to a concert or museum, makes us feel more intensely. But the true intensity comes from creating art. Even sitting here, writing this blog post, putting the words together while listening to Bach (which is what I’m doing), has a certain intensity to it. And then what I write will go out into the world, and you will either like it or not, find it relevant to you or not. There’s a risk in that, and the risk is fundamental to the intensity of the experience. We can’t feel fully alive without taking risks. That’s why climbing a mountain and writing a book will make us feel alive — they are different kinds of risks, but to both of them, we bring the totality of ourselves. We have to commit ourselves to the task. And that’s another component of feeling alive.
An idea is developing as I write this, about what it takes to feel fully alive. You commit yourself to something risky, something that feels greater than yourself. Like moving to Tokyo. (A friend of mine is currently living in Tokyo for several months, and I love to see the pictures she posts on social media. It allows me to participate in her adventures vicariously. But it would make me feel envious if I did not know that in June, I will be abroad myself, in Budapest for a month.) Like learning to play Bach on the cello. Something with a real possibility of failure. And then you do it, and see what happens. Perhaps we all need suspense in our lives, not just in novels . . . To feel fully alive, we need to feel as though we could fail. Isn’t that ironic? Because at the same time, we hate to fail, don’t we? We hate to fall, to make mistakes. And yet, so many of us, if our lives are too safe, if they are too ordinary, will long for something to take us out of ordinary safety. We will say, let’s move to Tokyo.
We need risk and the possibility of failure in order to feel alive, and we need to find meaning in life in order to deal with risk and failure. Imagine Campbell and Frankl dancing a waltz . . .
I write this in part because there’s been a sort of backlash recently against the Campbellian message that we should all follow our bliss. There are people who say, following your bliss can lead to failure. It can be more sensible to lead a good, ordinary life. And it can. But if I weren’t following my particular bliss? If I weren’t risking failure? I’m not sure what I would do. No, I do know, because I remember being a lawyer, and what that was like. I had made the safe decision, the sensible decision from a financial standpoint. And I felt dead. I went to the same office every day, I did work for clients that in many cases I did not respect. And I was not healthy, physically or mentally. I can understand how, under those circumstances, someone would turn to destructive behaviors, simply to feel alive. I think what Campbell means by following your bliss is this: do what makes you feel fully alive.
And if you’re not sure what that is, if you’re still searching for something to bring you to life? I recommend art.
(These are the flowers I bought this week. Today, the branches are sprouting leaves. They are coming to life . . . You can also feel alive by experiencing ordinary life more intensely — by going out into a forest and feeling the trees around you, by walking down the streets of a great city and feeling it surging with life. That comes with its own kind of risk, which is riskier in some ways than moving to Tokyo, because it involves an engagement with and descent into the self. But more on that another day.)