Finding The Meaning of Life
The title of this article might sound pretentious, a click-bait or an immature call for attention – who could claim to know the meaning of life – so it is important to note that this realization is possibly only valid to my own life. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to resist the urge to share my realization with others because of the fear of being ridiculed or looked at the wrong way. So – if you want to, please save your judgment for the end of the article and don’t stop with the headline.
There is a phrase that I heard some adults say when I was around 18: “The invincibility of youth”. This means that since you’re young and inexperienced, you feel invincible – you’ve never come in contact with a serious threat to your life, and hence you think that no matter what you do, there is absolutely no way in the world that you could realistically die of just about anything. My parents certainly faced that with me when they warned me of dangers (sometimes they were way too careful of course, but …). I would naturally respond with “Nothing will happen!”. To a good part, I was in control of my actions and had a sound risk management policy for my own adventures, but to another part I had never come in contact with something life-endangering, so I didn’t know any better.
The second saying I heard and read (often in self-help or new age material) was “Live every day as if it was your last”. Always savor the moment, live in the now: Eckhart Tolle and many religions and life philosophies agree on that. Still, it sounded like “one of these things adults say”. It sounded like a meaningless empty phrase that should inspire courage but truly felt contrived.
An OK Swimmer, A Terrible Surfer
It is early September 2012, and I get a call from my friend Bob – we met on a film set and kept collaborating on various adventures since then: “Toby, do you want to come to Malibu and do some surfing?”
Awesome. I’m just about OK at swimming, but I really suck at surfing. I tried it multiple times, owned board and wetsuit, but just never went beyond some really basic successes and massive wipeouts. Anytime I have a problem or weakness in life, I try to consciously expose myself to it until I get better at it. So for me, this was an opportunity to become better at surfing.
As we drive out there, things look great. I’m stoked. We go surfing for the most part of the morning, up to the point of total exhaustion. My mouth tastes like salt water, I am tired of getting crushed by the waves and eventually get out of the water. Bob is not tired yet – although he’s in his early 40s and I am 23, he’s way more fit in the water; a former scuba diving instructor turned actor-therapist, he has lived many lives, and some of them were in the water. Although we are political opposites in many ways, we enjoy each other’s company, critical minds and healthy challenges to our paradigms and convictions. I just sit there, on the beach, daydreaming and watching Bob and the other surfers do their thing. Kind of lame, I think – I’m out here, and everyone is having fun in there. I might be tired, but I could at least body surf close to the beach. All right, just for a little bit.
When There Is No Other Option
I’m back in the water. The sky has turned grey, the waves got bigger, and it’s a blast. I jump into them, swim a bit out to catch them for a longer time, jump around. Bob turned to bodysurfing as well, our boards are now resting on the beach. There’s less surfers than before, so we have more space to catch waves with our bodies. I get really into it, my power magically returned. I swim back out for a little while to grab the waves where they are nice and big. Catch the first one, and … BOMMM, fall off right the top, get pushed underwater by the breaking wave, come back up into the fizzing carpet of white bubbles, the indexical remnant of a brutal wave. I turn back around, another huge one coming right there. And another, and another. I dive to avoid them, but have to struggle to get back up to the surface. I think I’ve got enough, back to the beach. As I turn around, the beach is far away. It seems like half an eternity. I start swimming. Then grumbling behind me. Another wave. BOOM.
Swim some more, boom. I really start struggling, and the beach is still just as far. Bob is further inland. “Toby, are you okay?!” “No!”
I never said no to this question. Broken leg, breathing problems, food poisoning – all of them can be fixed, so I always affirm that I am okay. Now, I am not okay. Bob motions that he is also out of power and needs to return to the shore before he can help me. I look over to my left, where I saw a surfer a while ago. He’s just as far away, probably won’t even hear me when I shout. Fuck.
In this moment, something happens in your body: You feel that your life is in danger, and two things can happen: Either, you get a massive adrenaline boost that gives you superhuman endurance; the body risking its muscular structure, allowing for damage to occur in order to save itself – that’s the kind that lets you lift someone out from under a car and that sort of peak performance phenomena.
The second option is panic, with all the power disappearing in thin air.
For me, it was panic. My body got weaker and weaker, and I could feel – just like a life status bar in a computer game – the endurance wane away. I look towards the shore – still many hundred feet away from me. No sign of Bob, no way to reach the surfer. I look at my paddling hands – my arms have become so weak that my hands aren’t even reaching above the water surface any more. I am swimming like a dog, with the grey clouds above me, and my energy is disappearing at a staggering rate. I am in total panic, in total fear of my life.
I can really feel it: The power in my limbs is going to last me maybe 15 more seconds. 15 seconds. Hundreds of feet left to the shore. It’s impossible. In that moment, similar to an epiphany that I had many years back, I have a huge cascade of thoughts in a single second rain into my consciousness:
There is no other option. I am going to die.
This is literally the last 15 seconds of my life. Dying out here, on the water, as a mediocre swimmer and terrible surfer. Pathetic. No movie strip of my life racing by, reviewing childhood events or whatever. But I’m going to die. I think of the people that I love and that love me: I see the mental image of my girlfriend getting the news. My parents. My mom crying. My little brother. My friends in the US and in Austria. What will they do with my corpse? Will they bury it here in America? Fly it back to Vienna and bury it there? They will be sad.
I realize that I had so many plans. I wanted to become 120 years old. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to make huge movies and tell big stories. I wanted to explore the human mind and contribute to the world of research. I wanted to have kids, a family, live on every continent of the world for at least 6 months. I wanted to make films that would help people understand each other, and bring peace to our daily lives. I wanted to do so much more, but it will now drown together with me.
Then I think of the life I’ve lived. I made a lot of art in my time on Earth, and I uploaded nearly all of it. I shared nearly all of my realizations about life and art and science and intellectual debates with others. I’ve helped a lot of people, emotionally or financially or with opportunities. I inspired other people to do better. I’m glad that I chose a life like the one I had, it was a life that will have some lasting effect on others beyond my own, which is about to end.
And suddenly, I am at peace. I am happy with what I did, and although I’m sad that others will have to grief my death, and I didn’t get to execute on my big plans and big ideas, I at least have made good use of the 23 years that I’ve had. It’s okay to die. If I could have at least died a heroic death, or something cool. But it’s okay, I will just drown out here because I am too weak of a swimmer.
It’s okay to die.
All of these thoughts happened in about one second, which seemed like an eternity. And suddenly, my panic transformed into a deep peace with myself and the world. I would keep paddling just because, but it would be 15 seconds and then everything would be over. And that was okay. It’s okay.
I stretch out my foot, and suddenly I feel sand. Out of all places in the world, out of all latitude and longitude of this beach, I hit a sand bank hundreds of feet off shore. I stand. Relax my arms. Recharge. And swim back to shore. I fall into the beach chair. I start laughing. I just nearly DIED. Bob comes over. “Everything all right?” “Yeah, was just kind of crazy!”
I shrug it off and do as if nothing had really happened.
6 Months Later
An experience like this stays with you. It is burned into the crevices of your cortex like a trauma, ever accessible for recall, like a car accident that you experience in slow motion. And it took me 6 months to actually make sense of it. In the beginning, I just told people that I nearly drowned, and that it was super intense. But once I had enough time to reflect, once I had enough sensory input from related fields and philosophies, I started realizing something.
For one, that I can henceforth be absolutely sure that I can die any moment. If the two of us – you, dear reader, and myself – are having coffee and talking about our plans for the future, I will probably mention to you that we could as well just die right there, while having coffee. A structural problem in the building that houses the cafe, an old branch of a tree, a roof shingle, a substance you didn’t know you were allergic to, a random heart problem – whatever it may be, you can die every single moment of your life. There’s always the chance, and you have absolutely no control over it. You can be as risk-adverse as sitting at home all day and ordering delivered food, but you can still die in a multitude of ways.
So the next time when you hear someone say “Live every moment like it was your last”, there is a real truth in that saying. You might roll your eyes at me saying that, but trust me – I rolled my eyes at it until I had a near-death experience. Maybe we all do, since we don’t realize that it’s actually an appeal to our rationality – an appeal to recall something so obvious. Ever since then, I am permanently aware that I am extremely vulnerable to the outside world, and that I can literally be wiped off the world during any stage in life.
And that realization was huge, because it triggered two more realizations:
The first one was – if you have great plans what you want to do in life, you need to share them. If you are working on a manifesto, you need to share the draft with others. If you feel like you just solved a huge mystery or a scientific problem or an issue of policy, you need to tell others about it. Because if you don’t do that and just go to bed, you might die in your sleep. And then, your idea dies together with you.
The second realization was more complex. If you were to invest in a company, would you invest in one that has a solid base, or would you invest in one that is hanging on a string like the Sword of Damocles? All of us would want to put our money in something resilient, not something fragile.
We spend all of our lives building our little empires of wealth, happiness, relationships and goals to personal success. But in the end, what we invest in is ourselves: My money, my big house, my prestige, my hot wife, my fast car, my big boat, my position within society, my, my, my. When that “my” is actually one of the worst investment options out there, because it is absolutely dependent on me being alive – which can end any seconds. Say, you want to be a big time filmmaker. So you spend a lifetime working hard, amassing wealth and power – just to lose it in the end. And once you lose it, it’s gone. Your money gets split up to your heirs, your house gets sold, your partner is either grieving or finds someone else – and all your adventures, your happy memories, your masturbatory lifestyle, gets buried with you.
I needed to radically rethink what I wanted out of life. Money was never that important, but I think I started out as an artist when I was 14 because I wanted appreciation, praise, acknowledgment – and I think that stuck with me right until I looked death straight in the face.
But appreciation, praise, acknowledgment, love towards me, admiration – who benefits from that, apart from myself? Nobody. A Wikipedia article about my great life? Nobody but me. Fat Paycheck? Me. Fame? Me.
The me that can die every second.
I couldn’t live a life any more that had myself as the primary benefactor. That would have been more than hypocritical. I needed to find a better way of doing things. I needed to know why I was alive, and what I should do with that life. I needed to find … the meaning of life.
And the meaning that I found was simply the mirror image of my realization: The meaning of my life can not be about me, because I am so fragile that I could cease existing any moment. I needed to live a life that would have an external instead of an internal end. A life that would create something that isn’t linked to my mortality, and that is beneficial for others, beyond my lifetime.
My realization was:
The meaning of life is to create lasting value for other people.
And so far, I haven’t encountered any rational arguments that were able to challenge that realization.
I am writing down this memory now two years later, from a small cafe on Bancroft Avenue. In front of me, I see dozens of young people discussing, growing and learning. I am studying in my last semester at UC Berkeley, a school like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I had enormous personal breakthroughs and experienced growth far beyond my hopes. I learned so much more about life and about filmmaking. I spent my time as meaningful as I could, because I had that near-death experience, and had all the realizations that came with it.
And for me personally, realizing that I needed to create lasting value for others above everything else in life – that helped me to get a better perspective on filmmaking. I found that the way I can permanently contribute to the world – to live out the meaning of my life – is to make films that are useful to other people.
Films that inspire, allow learning, encourage growth, guide outside of comfort zones, films that society can permanently benefit from.
If I wouldn’t have hit that sand bank in Summer 2012, my dreams would have become one with a raging ocean. But since that didn’t happen, I tell as many people as possible about what I want to do, and what I learned to get there.
Per my realization, I’ve told this story to many people as soon as I could actually make sense of it. But it would be unfair to presuppose that only my personal friends should be able to participate in my experience, so I am publishing it for anyone in the present and future, to hopefully find some inspiration.
So that my little life can be of use to you once it’s gone.
And if you, dear reader, ever have a near-death experience, then you’ll know exactly what I was talking about.