What Really Matters in Life?


Seneca once said: “It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.” Make the most of your days, because none of us knows which day will be our last one. To this point, life has proven to be fatal, with death perhaps being the only certainty any of us ever have in a life full of uncertainty. Should we find ourselves fortunate enough to die peacefully at an old age, what sort of life do you want to remember as you sit back and reflect on your existence? Really, sit and think about it. Think about your final days, as you prepare to leave this world and enter the afterlife, enter paradise, become reincarnated, or simply cease to be, depending on your belief. What do you want to have accomplished? What things can you do that will make you proud of the life you lived. 

For me some of the things that first come to mind are that I would like to learn a foreign language or two. I would like to travel extensively and meet many interesting people, and see beautiful places. I would like to win a major athletic competition, maybe even learn to fly a plane. These are fun things and I am sure a lot of us can come up with a plethora of skills we want to learn, places we want to go, or hobbies to try. Essentially these are all just check marks on a bucket list that we want to try before our time expires. 

Are these any of these truly meaningful? They are certainly fun and will give us a good time while we spend our existence here. But to what extent do they actually going to matter? Would you be sad if you sat on your deathbed because you never did go to flight school and learn to become a pilot? Maybe. But what if your reason for skipping flight school was because it required too much time and so instead you spent it as an assistant coach for your daughter’s swimming team, an experience that brought the two of you close together and was a tremendous bonding experience. Are you going to lament that you never learned to speak Mandarin? Maybe, but what if the reason you missed it was because the only available course was at night and on those nights you wanted instead to be home for a family dinner to talk to your wife about her day, and be involved in the lives of your children. Sure, it would have been cool to learn Mandarin and maybe visit China a few times, ordering a meal or giving directions in the native tongue. But would it have been worth the loss of time with your family? 

These are all just hypotheticals but the reason I believe them up is to demonstrate that the types of achievements I listed above are really just hobbies, pass-times, or extraneous activities. They bring us joy and introduce pleasure and excitement into our lives. They are fun and enjoyable ways to spend our time on earth. If you have the time and the ability to pursue such passions then by all means, go for it. To me however they are not the ultimate source of happiness nor do they determine our meaning or give purpose to our existence. What really gives meaning and purpose to our lives I think are virtues such as kindness, love, compassion, and empathy. To live with these virtues is to establish meaningful relationships with other living beings. To embody these virtues is to ease the suffering of others, creating greater happiness in their lives. To live this way creates a ripple of positivity that will outlast our time on earth as those to whom we show kindness to will likely go on to live their lives in such ways themselves. 

To live with such virtues is by no means mutually exclusive of having hobbies, of enjoying simple pleasures in life, or simply learning new skills. But the latter examples only give excitement and pleasure to our existence, without necessarily giving meaning. You may desire build a successful business. Suppose you are successful and you found a company that grows and grows, building more revenue, hiring thousands of employees, with offices all across the world. That company is so strong it will last for generations. Yes this is something that you can be proud of and something that people will remember you by. Ultimately it does not define you as a person. The real value in your life would come from how you treated your customers and your employees. Whether you treated people with kindness, whether you were trustworthy and honest. That is the true legacy that you leave behind to the world. 

Or you could be a world traveler. Maybe you visited over 100 countries in your life time and have thousands of good stories to tell. Yes that is fascinating and you would make for great company at a dinner party, but would it truly make your life meaningful. What if you were lonely for the entirety of your travels, never able to make true and lasting friendships because of the transient nature of your lifestyle, would it be worth it. 

To reiterate, none of this is to say that you can’t live a life of kindness, compassion, love, and happiness unless you sacrifice hobbies, projects, learning opportunities and more. These things greatly enrich our lives. But do not spend your whole life learning a new craft and becoming the best at something if it means you are neglecting the opportunity to spread happiness and joy, to connect with others and live harmoniously. I am not telling you that there is a right way or a wrong way to live, just something to think about as you contemplate the type of life you want to live. For me, the best life would be one filled with love, friendship, and service of others, while also taking time to work on things that interest and excite me like travel, history, sports and more. Think about it, and try to see what sort of life you want to live, such that when your last day approaches you can greet it welcomingly and without regret. Remember the words of Seneca, it isn’t that we don’t have enough time on this earth to do something meaningful, its just that we waste so much time. Get busy living the life you want. What matters most is not what we do but how we live. What matters is that you live well, treating others with love, courtesy, kindness, and warmth, which in terms creates a ripple of positivity that will become your legacy. 

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