Death Conquers All: Reconciling Ambition With Satisfaction
“For me life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.”
A Little Backstory
I haven’t shared this with you guys yet, but a lot of the inspiration for starting this blog came from the loss of my brother. Well, we weren’t blood brothers, but we were tighter than most friends and took to introducing each other as brothers, so it stuck. He and I served together for most of our time in the military and being two very young Marines out in the real world for the first time, you might say we grew up together. His life read like a bad movie, perhaps because he designed some of the drama into it on purpose, or hell maybe he made some of it up. I do know for a fact though that many of his stories were true, and his death was just as story worthy as much of his life was.
He and I first hit it off when we started discussing religions and philosophies and found that we were both extremely interested in figuring out what the hell this world was really all about. (Don’t hold your breath for the answer, I still haven’t figured it out). One of the conversations we used to have quite regularly was whether it was more important to never be satisfied so that you are constantly motivated to keep grasping for more, or if it was more important to find tranquility by being satisfied with whatever circumstance you find yourself in. This conversation literally went on for years, with neither of us ever really making a good enough case one way or another to say definitively which was better, achievement or tranquility.
Alexander the Great…
He achieved more than arguably anyone ever has in such a short life, but does it matter? One little passage from one of my favorite authors offered a little insight. The book is “The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great” by Steven Pressfield. In one of the passages, Alexander comes upon a philosopher who refuses to offer him the respect he deserves. One of Alexander’s aides accosts the man and says “this man has conquered the world, what have you done?” To which the man responds, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.” Of course, I don’t know the name of this fictional philosopher, but I did consider naming one of my sons Alexander. So who is following the right path; who made the greater impact? Are those the same question or are the two exclusive of each other?
Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died, and the same thing happened to both, they were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.”
This is a quote that my brother and I discussed many times during our debates about this subject, and we both took it to mean that one should not get too worked up over achievements, because once you’re dead it will not matter. It took his passing for me to realize just how right this line of thinking is. Worrying about a legacy, or doing things for some misguided sense of glory is just an attempt to achieve some level of immortality, and I believe that at it’s core it is motivated by the fear of death and the inability to reconcile with the fact that at some point you will cease to exist as you do now. (Which is why the name of this blog is Wake Up Dead man)!
So You’re Saying that I Can Just Slack Off?
Absolutely not! The final word on the subject came from my brother, because he checked out before I did, but in the end we both sort of reached the conclusion that the only way to reconcile unbridled ambition and drive with our more Stoic principles was to focus on our efforts and not on our achievements. Your effort is what makes for a more fulfilling life, not your conquests.
Many people say it like this, “life is about the journey, not the destination.” I agree 100%, but I think some of the power of it is lost when I read it on the back of a VW van. It is true though, because we can control how we conduct ourselves on the journey, but we cannot always control the destination.
Take the quote at the top of the post for example. Arnold lists off several “meanings of life,” but are they all congruent? I don’t really think so. I think that to “move ahead” and “to go up” are both fairly good arguments for what life is about, but “to achieve, to conquer,” I’m not so sure about. Barring extenuating circumstances, we can generally control our ability to progress or move ahead, (journey) but we cannot control whether or not we will achieve or conquer, (destination). Your true best effort is what requires you to “stay hungry,” always trying your best and improving upon your own best effort is what life is made of, the conquest or lack thereof is secondary at best. It is a nice little perk, but it is a poor motivator because if you fail to get what you want, you feel dissatisfied, and if do get what you want you will find that it doesn’t offer the satisfaction you thought it would. It is a never ending cycle of despair, but unfortunately it seems to be the life program that most people function on.
It’s Not Whether You Win or Lose…
…it’s how you play the game. In my younger, more ambitious days I used to think that those words were loser language, that winning most definitely was what mattered, but I’ve since changed my mind. I now realize that life is too short to stress out about things that are outside of my control, and the thing I have the most control over is me. Lets say I am a competitive athlete and I have a big championship event coming up. The only factor I can control is how much I prepare and how ready I am to go out there and piss excellence and be unstoppable. If the other guy shows up more unstoppable than I am, well it’s “good game man,” and I’m back to the gym to train. This mindset beats the hell out of losing your self worth and your sense of tranquility out on the field because “you’re a loser.” You’re only a loser if you didn’t show up with the best preparation you could have, and if you didn’t give it everything you had.
“I Don’t Feel Like I’ve Accomplished Shit!”
My bro died before he had a chance to realize many of his ambitions, but it can never be said that he didn’t go out swinging for the fences. He honestly did practice excellence in almost all areas of his life. However, he, like most people, (myself included), had not completely conquered his need to conquer the world. That being said, I do think he spent the majority of his time focused on what was immediately within his control, and not concerning himself with the results. So that’s a good start. In the end, he left some credit card debt, a little cash in a savings account, various and sundry personal effects, and a priceless life lesson– Alexander the Great, Benjamin Franklin, Leonard Da Vinci, Siddhartha Gautama, countless others whom I look to for inspiration,…and my bro, all died, and the same thing happened to all of them.
Kind of takes the pressure off doesn’t it?
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