Live Like You’ll Live Forever? Or Live Like You Only Live Once?

Living like you’ll die tomorrow doesn’t make any sense. Neither does loving like you’ll live forever, for that matter. In the first case, lack of planning for the future makes for a bad tomorrow. In the second case, I can’t help but feel like that attitude lends itself to forming love habits, where you’re mostly with someone because you’ve been with someone for a while, and if something better comes along, you’ll go with that, but you have forever, so you don’t need to be proactive about it. Lazy, really.

Yes, I know that saying is more about the spirit of living in the moment and loving fully. I just think it’s a bad way to orient your life’s compass too firmly. But what is a good way? How should we live? Obviously we want to go for a balance between the future and the present in this lifetime (easier said than done). But what about the broader future?

There’s a whole lot more future than there is lifetime, after all. Should we live as though we will essentially live many lives, and not to worry too much about this one? Or as though we just have one life, and to live this one as fully as possible? This is a vast oversimplification, I know. But for argument’s sake, let’s use these two broad categories.

I have held both philosophies, though I am currently firmly in the latter camp. I’m not going to get into whether I actually believe we will live many lives or just one life (I lump religions with an idea of heaven into the “one life” category, since heaven sort of implies that you only get one shot at an earthly existence), but instead am thinking about the way in which we live this stretch of here and now that we call life.

There’s some pros and cons to each way of living, of course. The one life philosophy lends itself to exploration; it doesn’t matter that there’s really only so many broad variations on a particular life experience because it’s new to me, and this is my individual experience. Perhaps stricter religions don’t really fit in with this part after all, since the idea is that I live for a deity. In that, they are more in line with the second philosophy. But that comes later.

In living life to the fullest, I try to experience as many things as possible. The balance that I try to maintain is my personal enjoyment now (after all, there might not be an eventual reward!) versus building a future so I don’t end up homeless/alone/miserable later in life. But really, the goal is to learn everything, experience everything, do everything, enjoy everything, and sometimes do something that I know will hurt, just to fully experience things.

There are obvious advantages to this sort of approach. But the disadvantages include a sense of driftlessness – a lot of young people don’t really seem to have roots anymore. I know I personally am becoming a jack of all trades, and will miss out on the mastery that comes with a lifetime of devotion. There is the risk of repeating others’ mistakes, both out of ignorance and out of the need to experience the ramifications for myself. And finally, there’s the risk of abandoning things prematurely. Lovers, jobs, cities… following the nagging feeling that I’m not taking full advantage of the variety life has to offer.

The idea of many lives lends itself, in my mind, more to expertise and mastery. The idea of exploring something entirely new, rather than simply rehashing many of the shared experiences of other lives. The moments where “we’ve all been there” lose their appeal. For the first part of my life, I devoted myself completely to music, with all the piety of a Puritan. I missed out on a number of traditional high school activities, some of which (adolescent sex, senior prom, etc) I don’t regret. But I’m glad that I have since departed that path; though it was a deep one, it was too narrow for my maturing mind.

The advantages to this kind of life might not be so obvious, unless you call to mind people who have remained famous after their lives are over. Scientists and composers, and even medieval monks and saints, are lauded for their single-mindedness. Sometimes erroneously, of course – Mozart was quite the partier, for example – but for the most part human advancement comes from, or is perceived to come from, that kind of life devotion.

Then there is the feeling of continuity. I remember feeling comforted during my teenage angst by thinking of the long tradition of musicians, and the grand scheme of music of which I would play a part, however small. The Bhuddist traditions of equanimity and calm are much easier to attain with this sort of worldview (not impossible, of course).

I know that I will miss out on the deep, continuous knowledge of a place, a person or a vocation that comes with the second worldview. And that’s kind of sad. But, at the same time, I’m terrified of missing out on the variation and breadth of experience that comes with the first worldview.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an opinion about which way is better; I know what choice I am making, and that’s all. I can’t even claim to have an answer – if I did, I’d either be a lliar or a wise woman. But pondering these issues is my way of avoiding a third method of living: the method of not planning, not thinking, and not reflecting. And that’s not something I’m capable of doing.

What do you think? Is there nobility in life dedication? If we are the universe (or a deity) experiencing itself, should we experience the greatest variety possible? How are you choosing to live your life today?


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