Everyone is a product of their circumstances. There are so many givens in life that no one can claim that all they have achieved have been achieved purely out of hard work. Undeniably, some have put more hard work into the equation than others while some other have hugely favourable circumstances tipped their way. How to make sense of these? Here’s a try.
How The Quest Comes to Be
I have dreams. I have envies. I have reasons to be grateful. I have made some marks in life. Yet, I have yearnings so far from being attained I’m not even sure they would ever be fully attained. Some of these yearnings are so vague that it’s enigmatic just to spell them out, but their presence is nevertheless manifest and persistent.
Then I look around. I ask myself: How do people live their lives? When and how do they know they’ve had their jackpot – or lack thereof? Hence my enjoyment in savouring biographies and histories. When I consume them, my mind would ever be alert of two hovering questions. Whenever something significant happens, especially achievements and events with historic proportion, I’d ask:
- Against what background had this happened?
- How old were the people involved at the time of the event?
These questions give me a desirable standard mental frame to assess those narratives and my own life against them.
What It’s About
I tentatively conclude that everyone wants to be happy. While everyone of us may define happiness in our own terms, in aggregate these would fall within either one of these five categories, listed here in no particular order:
- ownership and accumulation of wealth
- obtaining fame / social stature / personal goodwill during one’s lifetime
- getting married and building one’s own family
- living a physically / emotionally / mentally enjoyable life
- living behind a lasting legacy beyond one’s lifetime.
We define “happy” in a variety of ways and regardless of the way we define it, we desire more of it. Let’s say for each of the five categories above we have a scale, say from 0 to 10. On each scale we have two scores: an existing score, i.e. the condition where we are, and a desired score, i.e. the condition we want to attain.
Five Existential Gaps
We now have up to five gaps that need to be closed. The existence of five gaps though, doesn’t necessarily mean we want and are able to close all five. You see, we are each thrown into a particular condition that may limit our capability to close all existing gaps – and setting that apart, we may not care enough to bother all five since there are some of which we care more and some we don’t deem necessary in our lives.
When we look at the existing score, we can see how we are thrown into it:
- parental presence and love during our early years,
- home stability during the first two decades of our lives,
- the kind of schools we attend,
- secondary adults around us during our childhood (grandparents, relatives, nannies, teachers),
- friends and neighbourhood, etc.
These are all thrown our way with us having very limited or no ability to make any option whatsoever; just as we are thrown to these people, contexts, and opportunities without them having their say. There’s a bilateral (or probably multilateral?) thrownness at work here. We barely can do anything about these. We can only be grateful for the good things that happen to us, make the most of the not-so-desirable ones, and fight to effect changes where changes are wanted.
Considering the Gaps: Introducing “Relative Existential Jealousy Gap”
Now let’s compare that default condition with where we are now. When we look at our lives – or someone else’s, either actual or hypothetical – we can find that people may achieve remarkable feats on a happiness category they don’t really care about; but for that reason they’ve legitimately become an object of envy. On the other hand, they themselves may be envying someone else for having hit the jackpot (or having the prize put within their discretion, as long as they care enough to put it into use) on an area they actually care about. Such is life. Those who want and work hard may not necessarily succeed and those who succeed may not necessarily want or care about it.
On top of possibly ensuing jealousy, such a condition may also cause existential questions since people may question: What’s my life for? Is it meaningful? Is it worth fighting for? What if my best isn’t good enough? Will I be satisfied? What’s the end of it all? I’d call this “relative existential jealousy gap”. It’s existential because it concerns our whole life’s existence and its ultimate assessment. It’s relative because it exists in comparison with someone else or another condition (either actual or hypothetical) with which we compare our own.
We may question the quality of our life’s work because someone else seems to be doing a better job in closing the gap in our particular area of interest. Essentially, we are comparing the efficacy of our work in closing our score gaps with someone else’s. It may not be necessary nor valid, but the facts sometimes undeniably thrust themselves in the midst of our path.
This gap can be era-specific. Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister in the 19th century (was it really him or someone else?) once lamented, “We live in an era of many great people, but only small events.” A lamentable condition indeed. We can see a generation later Winston Churchill immortalised in world’s hall of fame thanks to Adolf Hitler’s rise in Germany and his Aryan ambition (Churchill became British Prime Minister once more after the war, but he was a lousy peace-time PM; in hindsight, it can be said that it was Hitler who prepared the stage for Churchill to be one of the greatest world leaders of modern era).
More often though, the gaps are defined by personal circumstances, such as in which country one is born, to which culture and ethnicity, etc. It certainly helps that you’re born into a wealthy, powerful aristocrat family or other super-rich and powerful parents. You would have a fat buffer – both financially and socially – to make more mistakes and you have the sophisticated launch pad needed to catapult you to high places. Of course it’s not guaranteed: if you’re born as an heir to a throne but you don’t like ruling or you’re born as the first sone of an aristocratic family but you don’t like farming and managing estates, “it may feel like a life sentence”, said Charles, the 9th Earl Spencer. But hey, you still have the huge benefit anyway.
Net Impact vs. End Result: The Role of the Fat Buffer
Now at the end of one’s life, hypothetically we can assess the net impact a person has made during their lifetime. I’d like to propose that there are two different factors involved here: the net impact of one’s life (can be positive or negative) and the absolute life condition at one’s death. When you are born with fat buffer, your net contribution in life can be negative, but you still die peacefully and surrounded by affluence, opulence, and great honour. For example: Do you know the much beloved British Queen Mother once overdrew her bank account by £4,000,000 due to her lavish lifestyle? Yet to the very end she was much loved and adored by the British public.
If you’re born with less (or even no) financial and social buffer, you may exhaust yourself to death, your net contribution in life can be thousands of percent (meaning you’ve multiplied your parents’ and family’s well-being many times over) or you’ve made significant contribution to science (e.g. Copernicus) or art (e.g. Bach & Mozart), but your living condition and life quality can still be (relatively) meagre and you die as a person relatively unknown.
The Quest Continues: Some Ramblings
I think it’s interesting to explore in another piece of writing about these people who give their most in their lives, in due time have changed the course of mankind, but they themselves didn’t have the opportunity to properly taste the fruits of their work, the honour to be associated with their names many years after their death, and the enjoyment of life they should have deserved.
Life is a big pond of paradoxes and competing pulls searching for elusive middle-ways. It requires us to reflect, but also to act; to dream, but also to work; to accept many givens without falling to fatalism; to work hard while being grounded so as to keep oneself safe and sane, ready to stand back again in the face of failure, and move on.
I also wonder whether existential questions such as these pondered in this piece can arise in every culture and every era. These are abstract questions and I doubt that all cultures are well suited for such non-concrete and impractical thoughts as these. I suspect there are boundaries in the sense that some group of people may live a very practical life that their abstract mental faculty isn’t well-developed. It’s interesting to see how abstract thoughts and existential struggles vary between ethnicities, cultures, languages, genders, etc. I think it’s an interesting endeavour to browse through literature and other art forms, seeing how conscience develops, how contexts provide subtexts for mental (sub-)cultures to emerge.
A Neverending Quest: A Biased, Tentative Concluding Remark
One thing that life makes it impossible for us is neatly defining our own life. Up until the very end of our lives, and even beyond it, there will be many circumstances beyond our control and by which we will be judged – if we’re remembered at all. But we may be. What seems to matter the most is what we make out of the ingredients thrown our way against our backdrop – some of which we’re blind to. Along the way though, let’s enjoy the adventure. Embrace life. Keep on dreaming. Keep on working hard. Leave a dent behind.