“The Higher Life: A Few Words on “Living” Instead of “Existing”
"The cause of the unhappy situation
...is the lack of a superior conception of life..."
- Leo Tolstoy
There’s “existing.” And there’s “living.”
To “live” is a different thing than it is to just “exist,” although they get confused with one another fairly often.
That’s understandable. They overlap and interconnect in more than a few ways.
But still: they’re different.
So, what are these two ideas really about?
Let’s dig in here and flesh them out.
To “exist” means to be born, survive for a while, and then die.
To “live” means something beyond that.
As long as we’re alive, we’re existing.
But it’s possible to be alive without really “living.”
If this was a game, to “exist” would mean something like simply showing up. It would mean just on the football field, for example. That’s it. To “live” would mean to play spectacularly.
To “exist” is the minimum possible requirement.
To “live” asks a lot more.
Each of these is centered on something different.
“Existing” centers on the physical survival of the physical body.
To keep your body alive, you need to eat and drink. In order to eat and drink, you need money. In order to get money, you usually need to do some kind of work. In order to work, you usually need to get an education, learn some skills, show up on time, not steal staplers or eat other peoples’ lunches, and more – all of which is geared toward doing something useful enough that somebody’s willing to give you money for doing it. There’s plenty more involved in all this – wearing clothes, taking showers every so often, following certain social rules, good and bad, and so on. But all of it traces back to one central mission: to keep the physical body alive.
“Living,” on the other hand, centers on – well, something different.
Some things in life aren’t at all centered on physical survival of the physical body.
Let’s look at Maslow’s Hierarchy, for example.
The bottom few levels – the base of the triangle – focus more or less literally on physical survival and those things immediately related to it. Our urges for safety, belonging, and self-respect, for example, connect easily with physical survival, although it gets more into social and psychological survival. But it’s still about survival. We’re social critters, and the more respect we merit, for example, the more likely we are to survive.
But then there’s the other part of that “hierarchy.”
We could also describe that as “everything else.”
It’s “…and all the rest.” It’s everything that’s part of the human experience that isn’t directly related to physical survival.
This seems to take us into new territory.
It seems to be a different game entirely, one played by completely different rules. It deals with things like art, religion, science, philosophy, heroic causes, beauty, nobility, truth for the sake of truth– stuff like that. Much of which seems to operate independently of physical survival. Sometimes it’s even in direct opposition to it, such as heroism, where someone sacrifices themselves to help others, or art, where artists starve for the sake of paintings, novels, songs, and blogs.
Again: it seems to be a completely different category of experience. And it’s one we’re all familiar with, on some level. After all, we say “get a life” or “I have no life” or “life is great!” Living – not existing – is what we’re referring to with those.
Everyone “exists.” But not everyone really “lives.” *
You can exist without living, but you can’t live without existing.
Cows, ants, pigs, platypuses, aardvarks, trees, dandelions exist.
But they don’t “live.”
Not as far as we can tell, anyway, in the sense we’re talking about here, that can help us humans understand it all.
(Maybe gorillas and dolphins and platypuses have their own versions of “living verses existing” that we aren’t really aware of. Maybe they have angst and wrestle with existential riddles and suffer through existential crises and so on. Stranger things have happened. So, if that’s the case – if they’d turn out to have angst, like we do – well, what would we say to them? “Congratulations”? “Welcome to the club”? “Glad we aren’t the only ones”? Maybe there’s a hippo somewhere that read Sartre and that really messed him up, and we just haven’t run across him or her yet. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter if it’s unique to humans or not. Either way, the problem is still sitting there in our lap, staring at us. We’re still tasked with figuring it out.)
Practically everyone wants to exist.
But not everyone, it seems, necessarily wants to really “live.” *
Several thinkers have written about this.
To run down just a few:
Oscar Wilde: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
Jack London: "The proper function of man is to live, not to exist."
Jonathan Swift: “May you live every day of your life.”
William Wallace (from the movie Braveheart): “All men die, but not all men really live.”
Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Henry David Thoreau: “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “The human race is a monotonous affair. Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.”
The movie Dead Poets Society, written by Tom Schulman:
“We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
Friedrich Nietzsche: “The secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously!”
We could keep going like this for a while.
The quotes from Nietzsche and Socrates are indicative of many others like it: it consists of one person sharing insights with another person on “how to live.” (Not how to exist, but how to live.)
Recommendations on successful “living” vary widely. For example, just from the above: is Socrates’ examining life the key ingredient, for example, or is it Nietzsche’s “living dangerously”?
But putting the “how” part aside for now, we can notice one interesting thing here.
We humans seem to both want and need instruction on this.
We seem to want and need some kind of Instruction Manual for life. Folks often disagree (especially these days) on which Instruction Manual is best. But almost everyone agrees that we need something.
And this seems to reveal something about important about our situation here.
Our built-in animal instincts, apparently, don’t seem to be enough to guide us through life.
They’re like training wheels. They offer some very rudimentary basics on how to get going: don’t lean too far to the left, and don’t lean too far to the right; try to stay somewhere in the middle.
They’re pretty handy when we’re first getting started, and when we’re barely starting to understand basic stuff like handlebars and how to sit without falling over and how to not steer into a tree.
But they don’t really take us all the way. Before long, they seem to fade in importance, and from that point, we’re on our own.
So our built-in instincts seem to be fine for existing, or merely surviving. But pretty quickly, we seem to want and need something more.
And here’s the tricky part.
Beyond merely existing, we often don’t really seem to know what to do with ourselves.
Boredom wouldn’t exist, for example, if we always knew what to do. But boredom – and the task of staving it off – seems to be a constant, continuous project for some folks, especially in modern life.
And this brings us to a critical point.
The whole “existing” project is doomed to fail.
You’ve probably heard it all before. Several times, in fact.
The only real question isn’t if, but when. Each of us has a date marked on a calendar. For each one of us, sooner or later, this entire “exist!” project will cease productions and shut down entirely. One day we’ll go quiet, and stay that way. At some point, we’ve all got an appointment to do a little dance called the Mortal Coil Shuffle.
A choice word here is “inevitable.” That it’s going to happen is as inevitable as it gets around here. It’s one of the few things in this life we can be certain of, aside from taxes. Yet we’re still often surprised when it actually happens.
This usually bugs us.
So we usually try to avoid thinking about it.
But if we can hang in there with this and sweat it out a little, we might squeeze something valuable out of it, like a little diamond coming from coal.
Although it might get a little hot at first.
Realizing this can make merely “existing” seem pointless.
Realizing – really understanding in a way that really sinks in – that this “Exist!” project is doomed to fail can drain all the juice from it.
It can suddenly start looking like a road trip to nowhere. Like hearing a story – or being in a relationship – that you suddenly realize isn’t “going” anywhere.
It’s like putting a lot of work into scrubbing a washcloth to get it clean, only to realize that it’s going to be thrown in the trash anyway. It might take some of the urgency out of scrubbing. It becomes an existential cul-de-sac.
It becomes meaningless.
This doesn’t mean that existing, of course, isn’t still a good thing. You still want to stay alive. It might even make it seem all the more precious.
But suddenly, it’s just not enough.
And that can be how it feels on a pretty basic level.
“Existing” just isn’t enough for some folks.
Once you realize that an entire project is doomed to fail – inevitably – you can start to reprioritize.
You realize that mere survival, as an end in itself, isn’t quite as important as it might have seemed at first. And even more: beyond a certain point, it’s throwing good money after bad. It’s like investing money in a business that you realize will never make more than a few bucks an hour. There’s a cap to it, an existential glass ceiling. If “existing” and “living” were businesses, “existing” is basically guaranteed to become bankrupt one day. But “living,” on the other hand, stands a chance of becoming just about anything.
And that’s when a certain sense can wash over you:
“There has to be something more than this.”
“There comes a time when one asks,
even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven,
is this all?”
- Aldous Huxley
“The higher life,” as we’re defining it here, is all about that “something more.”
Whatever that is.
We’re just trying to define something here that everybody kind of knows about and experiences, but that there are no easy words for.
“The higher life” is a kind of rebellion against mere “existing.”
We’re all clear about physical food that keeps our physical body alive. But that doesn’t seem to be all we hunger for. There seems to be some other kind of food that we need, too. And sometimes we can be as starved for it as we are for regular food.
There’s a sense of some kind of secret ingredient, some kind of missing piece, that converts mere existing into living.
And that makes all the difference.
But what is that “secret ingredient”?
It clearly exists. But it seems impossible to quantify. There’s clearly a difference between a humdrum relationship and falling wildly in love. But sorting those out is no small task.
If this had a tangible, easy answer, like “eat peas instead of carrots” or carrots instead of peas, then this whole matter would have been settled long ago. And we’d all be eating either peas or carrots.
And of course, marketing departments play on this at great length. They promise – either explicitly or implicitly – that if we buy their shoes, we’ll be living instead of just existing. And of course, we often believe them. Then we just wind up still existing, but now with a pair of shoes or fancy purse or whatever.
But to circle back to the problem: the difference has something to do with a level of life. Again: there’s some kind of spark, some kind of secret ingredient, some kind of missing piece that makes all the difference.
We all have a sense of what it is – what it means “to live.” We all probably have a sense that there’s more to life than merely existing. There’s something more. And we all have a sense that merely existing can seem pointless. But living isn’t. “Living,” in the way we’re pointing to here seems, in a way, to be the point. There’s something about living that’s inherently good in itself – not as a means to another end, but an end that everything else is a means to. Something that’s enough. That’s worth the struggle and effort.
But what is it?
What does it mean to really “live”?
How do you really “live” instead of merely exist?
There’s no shortage of answers here.
In fact, the challenge today isn’t that there are no answers, but too many. And they vary widely, and contradict each other. The more we pay attention to them, the more confused we often seem to get.
Some, for example, recommend extreme sports. Others push drugs. Others say “IT” lies in the direction of relationships, art, wealth, fame, status, power, pleasure, security, etc. “If you want to really live, do this.” Some say that living and existing are pretty much the same thing, and the only difference is how enthusiastic you are about it. So you can do all the same mundane stuff, but just do it with gusto, and that’ll solve it.
Again, marketing departments have taken this game to an entirely new level: they play on peoples’ hopes for “IT”, tweak them and agitate them, and then direct them toward whatever or whoever they’re selling. Directly or indirectly, they usually say, if you want to really “live”, buy my stuff.
There’s a flood of answers, and a hurricane of hype.
And that’s what we have to wade every day through as a central part of modern life.
Sorting through all this is part of our challenge today.
If we aren’t smart about it, modern life can strip us of everything valuable and leave us thoroughly fleeced. Unless we’re careful, we can easily wind up handing over valuable stuff – our attention, energy, time, and so on – for hyped-up junk. We can swap servings of life for status symbols.
But what’s a better answer here?
If trading our time and vitality for a status symbol isn’t the answer, what is?
Well, there aren’t easy answers here.
But just because there are no easy slogans or bumper-sticker platitudes doesn’t mean that no answers really exist. Which is to say: there might very well be answers. They just take some work to find.
So: what’s the difference between merely existing and really living?
Well, the answer here seems to be something like a personal riddle that each of us got tasked with solving at birth.
That riddle seems to be different for each of us. And the answer is probably different as well.
And we have to solve it for ourselves.
Solving that riddle seems like a worthwhile thing to do.
It might be something roughly like being born into a cave, and if we answer the riddle correctly, we get a glimpse outside of the cave. Or it might be like being thrown into a kind of prison on death row, but if we solve the riddle correctly, we escape. Or it might be like being trapped in the body of a dying animal or in The Matrix, and the only important or even sensible thing is to figure out how to escape.
That’s how folks like Plato, Gurdjieff, Yeats, the Wachowskis, and other folks have described it, anyway.
It’s an existential riddle, deep inside us, that we’re tasked with solving. The riddle is basically this:
How do you live instead of merely exist?
The search for the answer to that – from the asking and questioning to the practical, no-nonsense, genuine, experiential answer that you can feel in your bones – is a Quest. And it seems to be one we’re all already on. The only real difference is how much time, energy and thought we put into solving it.
But there’s another way of asking this same question.
We’ve been asking what it means to “live” instead of just “exist”?
But this question is really a slightly disguised version of a different question.
In order to really answer this, we need to understand a few other things.
Things about human nature, for example.
Because “living” could be seen as the human machine kicking into high gear, while “existing” could be seen as driving in first gear. Or, “living” could be understand as kicking into butterfly mode, while “existing” could be seen as caterpillar mode.
This would mean that somewhere in human nature, there are higher gears that we don’t usually shift into. Or the potential to transform into something like a butterfly, which probably seems at first like a crazy idea to a caterpillar.
But this question of psychology or human nature ties to another big one.
It’s basically another form of asking, “what is the meaning of life?”
The secret ingredient of “living,” the source of the magic, if there is one, could also be described as purpose, meaning, the point, the ultimate end of it all, the big enchilada, the Grande Burrito, The Answer to The Problem of life and death.
Of course, some folks say there’s no answer to this. But of course, that is itself an answer.
And that’s the whole point: looking not just for an answer, but the best possible answer that we can possibly come up with. Assuming there’s no answer – or even worse, negating the question – might not be the best answer. It might not even help solve our original problem much at all – figuring out how to really live instead of just exist.
Hopefully it’s clear that this isn’t merely some abstract intellectual theory here.
It might be something much better. It might be, for example, some kind of direct, first-hand experience that makes most other experiences seem like shadows of kid’s stuff. It might be the case that our most profound and pleasurable experiences, in other words, might be just glimpses or appetizer-like tastes of it. And the secret sauce behind really “living,” if there is one, might lie in not settling for merely glimpses or appetizers of it, but the whole meal. Not settling for a comfy seat with a front-row view of life outside the cave, but actually standing up and walking outside of the cave itself. Stepping outside, and seeing the sun, metaphorically speaking.
And that might be a moment when we’re like, “This is it.” And not just “it,” but it’s the “it” where all other “its” were pointing toward, and hinting at. It’s “IT”. Right here and now.
And that, dear reader, is something like the riddle we – your cuddly and over-caffeinated LiveReal Agents – are hunting, mulling over, digging into, catching every so often, getting tastes of every so often, realizing it’s slipped away, find it again – or something like it – and all over again, and more.
It can be messy.
But we’re working on it.
As you probably already are as well, wherever you are out there.
Some of the thinkers we mentioned earlier spoke about living as being rare, and proper, and dangerous, and what we stay alive for.
If that's the case, then let's be rare. And proper. And dangerous.
Let's really live.
* Appendix: No existential snobbery intended
Generally speaking, those who "get" what we're getting at here - those who have had a taste of both living and existing and understand the difference - inevitably see one as "better" than the other. That is, they see “living” as higher or of some kind of superior nature, whether they use those words to describe it or not.
That said, this doesn’t mean there’s any reason to be snobby about it. While some folks might have a thirst for “living” in so many words, there’s no reason to look down on those that don’t.
All to say, none of this is meant in a snobby, uppity, holier-than-thou kind of way. While we are using the word “higher,” there’s no claim to “better than” or “less than” here. Nobody has to get all worked up about this. We’re just trying to organize our experience a bit by drawing a line down the middle and putting them into one of two categories; basically a little existential accounting.