"Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced."
It's 2015, and my wife and I are at an amphitheater in Denver, sitting in the grass watching Dave Matthews Band do an acoustic set. As they play a song called "Grace is Gone," a song about grief over the loss of a close loved one, I realize that many of their lyrics have existential undertones.
Their lyrics can be pretty dark: "you may find a lifetime's passed you by" ("What Would You Say"), "life is short but sweet for certain" ("Two Step"), "every day should be a good day to die" ("You Never Know"), and "we'll all be dead and gone in a few short years" ("Pig").
It wasn't until later in life that I started studying the philosophy of existentialism, but I was already primed for it. The main ideas are that we don't choose to be born, life will be stressful, we ought to live authentically, and we get to choose our own purpose in life. This can be useful in our financial lives.
Existentialism starts with the idea that there is existence before essence. In other words, previous philosophies assumed that there was an essence of being human, and once you were born, your duty is to fulfill that essence. Existentialists turn that around and said we didn't choose to be born, therefore we first exist, and then we decide what our essence is.
Meaning and Purpose
Once we are born, it's up to us to figure out our essence. We have the opportunity to find our own purpose, and that purpose creates meaning in our lives. This purpose does not have to be some grand purpose of a large-scale. In fact, it can be more meaningful to find a local purpose.
Nobody knows when we will die, but we do know that we will die. It's common for people on their deathbed to express regrets regarding how they lived their lives. You don't have to wait until your deathbed to realize you've been misliving. Finding your purpose helps you design a life that you'll be happy to look back on from your deathbed.
Existentialism says that we are responsible for everything that we do. Because of this responsibility, we feel a lot of anxiety because if we're responsible for what we do, then we're accountable for the consequences of our actions. Therefore, we tend to avoid responsibility so that we can reduce that anxiety. This leads to us living in a way that isn't true to ourselves.
Existentialists will tell you living authentically is how you live a good life. Being true to yourself and acting in a way that is true to who you are can be freeing. Live your life in alignment with your values.
Humans are the only species, we think, that is aware of our own death. This contradicts our instincts. On one hand, we are wired for survival at all costs. On the other hand, we know that we will die - or not survive. This gives us another level of anxiety, death anxiety.
Doing everything we can to avoid thinking about death is exactly what leads to regrets on our deathbed. Understanding that our time is limited and finite allows us to not waste time enjoying the life that we have.
The Good Life
Death need not scare us. Death can and should inform us about how to live a good life. It's because we are only here temporarily that we can find meaning in our own lives. We can choose to cultivate the relationships that we have. We can choose to mentor others. We can choose to contribute to the greater good. We can do that because we know our time is limited.
Existentialism can help you with your financial life by helping you understand that you can find meaning and purpose in your life by living authentically and living in accordance with your values. You don't have to ignore the fact that you will die because knowledge of death makes the life you have more meaningful.
Keeping all of this in mind, you can use your money as a tool to design this life that you would be happy to look back on. Remembering that money is a tool and not a goal, you can realize that you can live the best life possible with the money you have by making sure you make time for the important things. Nobody sits on their deathbed wishing they'd spent more time with their money.
What kind of life would you be happy to look back on?
You only have one life. Live intentionally.
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