What do you think life is?
Life isn’t anything – might as well rip that band-aid off now. It is what you make of it. And it is still something when you make nothing of it. Life isn’t anything because that’s the closest we can describe it. Which is to say that we aren’t capable of describing it at all. Unless you think that you – just one of billions of people living on one of the hundreds of billions of planets in our galaxy, which is one of 200 billions of galaxies out there – that you can finish the sentence “life is…” at your wise age of 30. Or 50.
To the best of our knowledge, the universe is at least 14 billion years old. Billion. Years. Old. You, who was born to a specific pair of parents in a specific place, who has been to but a handful of places that make up just this planet, having experienced but a tiny fraction of the cultures and ideas that exist on Earth at this specific millisecond of cosmic time – you think you can read “life is <blah>” in someone’s book or speech and either nod in agreement or disagree? You who likely never experienced oppression, or taking a worry-free nap amid breezy grass of Kazakhstan while your flock safely grazes nearby, or carrying the responsibility of employing thousands of people, or risking your life for someone you love or an idea you’re entirely crazy about, or being to outer space, or meeting another sentient species – you think you can read about life with your confirmation bias and limited exposure and attempt to understand?
Life isn’t anything because to say that it is something is to say that we are able to conceptualize that something. In terms of scale, that’s akin to an electron conceptualizing about a human body it is part of. At best, we can say that life is an unknown.
It’s hard to admit we can’t comprehend something. Our egos are hard-wired against it. “But I’m a sentient being! I am capable of abstraction and…” Chill. Everything you’re saying or thinking or conceptualizing is in a language (visual or verbal), a language that has been defined by what has already been seen or experienced within a tiny fraction of time, on a single planet, and by a single species. A language so limited, it can’t even afford us to understand the point of view of other species co-inhabiting our planet, much less the universe or life in general. It’s as impossible to conceptualize something you haven’t experienced as it is for someone from the Middle Ages to suddenly conceptualize gamma rays. And the only reason you and I can conceptualize about Middle Age people conceptualizing about gamma rays is because today we know both about the people and the rays, which provided us with the necessary language to be able to conceptualize about it.
Notice I’m not saying life is nothing. That would be an absolute statement, a statement equating life with void. That would be saying that I know what life is, and that what I know about it is that it is nothing. But we’ve established above that I would be saying if I said that. What I’m saying instead is that life isn’t anything. It is not anything we can currently define or imagine or comprehend. It isn’t any thing we know. Or, in short, it isn’t anything.
Realizing that life isn’t anything can be unsettling. But we do know that life is full of paradoxes, and one of them is that letting go can be more powerful than grabbing on. So if life isn’t anything then there’s no imperative to make it that something. If there’s no imperative to make it something, then we’re free to make it anything.
In other words, if I define life as anything, then inside the microcosm we call Earth and “my life” it truly will be that something. For example, if I am a king who believes that life is nothing but war and struggle, I will try to conquer other kings by force, making life in my kingdoms be about war and struggle.
Every morning, you and I can wake up knowing that life isn’t anything. And every morning, you and I can say what life is. By the evening, our lives will be about that. And by that same evening, life still won’t be anything.