How To Reconcile Yourself To The Finite Nature Of Existence

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“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.” 
– Sylvia Plath

This sentiment has plagued me for many months now, like an itch, deep in my heart, mainly in regard to writing, for most writers will never be able to write down all the stories bubbling within them.

But it is not only writers who experience this.

Inside every person there exists million possibilities, a million shades of thought, ready to be expressed or experienced in some tangible form – but, because of the shortness of our lives, we are compelled to settle on bringing a handful of them to fruition.

It is like being a connoisseur faced with an endless array of delicious foods in the world, a feasting table covered in plates piled high with glistening edibles that stretches all the way to the horizon. Even if he were to spend every waking moment cramming his mouth, there would always be more he would not taste, and savor and experience. One human life is a tiny blink of time, and the world, and all the shades of feeling and being and sensing it contains, is infinite. The knowledge of this pulls one thin and tight, locked in agonized yearning.

For we all want to do things – O, so many things. We want to fall in love, we want to live in worlds that do not exist, we want to meet strange people; we want to wade in the fiery depths of the sun and dive off the curved edge of the moon; we want to write all the books within us; we want to see and feel everything, be it the way sunlight infuses the petals of a flower the size of a dinner plate, outlining its every rosy vein, or what it feels like to be buried alive in a coffin at the bottom of the ocean with only the skittering of fishes like dancing fingers across the lid for company.

And knowledge: we want to know everything. This, like everything else so far stated, is impossible. Even if one were to read a hundred books a day, another hundred books would have been written and created in the world at the end of each one; a never-ending devouring, until death, when the creature collapses on a pyre of books, blind and sweating.

Of course, the imagination can ease this tragedy of life somewhat. We can close our eyes, and envision ourselves seeing this, doing that, and if we imagine hard enough, it will be just as real as if we were actually seeing or doing it. But even that is to walk another limitless path; the imagination can spin a thousand situations, each more glorious than the last, and you would eventually drown in a puddle of dreaming.

Once this realisation hits, paralysis is an easy state to slip into. For if we cannot consume and taste everything, is it not better to eat nothing at all? That way, at least, we would not know what we were missing out on. Poised before such a feast, a man could starve by glancing  from dish to dish, fork held aloft and brow furrowed, unable to pick a single one.

There is, however, a better option, one which still possesses its share of yearning, but more of the wistful than agonized kind; and it is to select a few of the best dishes, and savor them, as slowly as possible, until you are full, and put down your spoon with a sigh.

As with everything, from choosing what to wear in the morning to how you spend your days, life is a matter of choice, and no more so than when it comes to selecting what to devote your measly 80 or so years of living (if you’re lucky) to. Rather than seeing the time limit as a constraint and praying to the Gods to get bitten by a vampire and gain immortality (I wish!), it is better to see the briefness of life as a way of singling out what is truly important, and what truly matters. Would it be better to write twenty books, each of reasonable quality, or three polished and masterful novels? Would it be better to take a small bite from everything until you are overstuffed, or savor a single dish, every burst of exquisite flavor and tickle of texture? In the end, neither is better; it is a matter of choice.

Another source of comfort is to remind yourself that the entire universe is you. That means, if there is something you want to do, but have not the time for, it is probable that someone, somewhere down the ages, will do it – and they are you, only looking out at the world through a different vessel with a different consciousness.

Of course, this is different when it comes to artistic creations, for sometimes a single human is the only conduit for a particular idea or concept, and when that person dies, their ideas perish with them. Which is why I have compiled a list of every single book or story idea that pops into my head, and have vowed to try and bring them to life, one by one, over the course of my lifetime. Probably most of them will remain little notes to myself, but some of them will go on to flourish as full-fledged stories to be sent out into the world. One of my favourite conceits is that stories, or any kind of art, are like tiny dreams, seeping into the collective consciousness like paint blooming in water; and when I write, and send out what I write into the world, I will be sharing my dreams, little pockets of magic, with other people, for lifetimes to come.

In the end, life is in the “savoring”, not the eating – which is just a fancy way of saying it is the journey, not the destination, that matters. You must enjoy it, whatever you are doing, in order for it to be worth your time and money (and money, by the way, in our society of salaries and wages, is but a tangible form of time. This means that if someone earns, say, $20/hr, and then buys a jacket worth $20, they have traded an hour of their life for that object – perhaps something to think about the next time you go shopping).

Ultimately, in the long run, what you do or don’t do has little bearing on humanity. Every single artist or writer on Earth could die right now, and people would keep on living, as they have always done. But what point would there be living, in a world so devoid of beauty?

I think the point is to create beauty, bring joy, and to love and live, with every fibre of our being and every second of our tiny lives. We all get scared of death, we are all afraid of life and people and pain, and we all wonder what the point of it all is, but these anxieties are useless – just a piece of string tangling itself up into more complicated knots when it could be doing something useful, like helping tie up shoes or a kite fly.

So go be a useful string: help other people, make other people happy, make yourself happy, and live in the present moment, savoring every shade of taste in the single bite of food you are chewing right this moment.

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2 thoughts on “How To Reconcile Yourself To The Finite Nature Of Existence

  1. What a wonderful, wise and beautiful post. I have been struggling so much with this lately – how can I choose what to focus on when there are so many exciting possibilities, I have multiple dreams and life is so short? – to the point of becoming paralysed and hence choosing nothing. Your post has reminded me of some potent truths, so thank you.

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