This essay first appeared in This Singaporean Life (subscribe!), a newsletter I sent out every Sunday (SGT) where I share my weekly musings on work and life in Singapore.
Are you afraid of growing old? I know I am. As age catches up, we all know we’ll start aching all over, lines on our faces get deeper, memory fails, bones and joints become stiffer, among many, many more.
But I’m sure we’ve all met some elderly people who embrace old age, some of us even have them in our lives. They all have this source of energy in them that they’re eager to share with us, usually through words and sometimes, actions.
The energy they give off is, of course, different from young kids or teenagers. It’s still a kind of energy that enriches life, though, in a way that is long-lasting and even inspirational.
Let’s call this energy, the energy of meaning. Meaning as in meaning in life – a purpose, a higher calling, or more simply, a “Why”.
That’s not to say every old person will exude the energy of meaning and no one can ever have the energy of meaning at a young age.
The way I look at it, the mentally mature people fill their lives with the energy of meaning, so much so that they want to gift it to others, to help them find their lives’ meaning, too.
Life only makes sense when we have something to care for – a sense of meaning.
“What’s your life’s purpose/goal/dream?”
That’s one of the most common questions when striking up a conversation with someone you’re trying to understand better.
After all, we want to know what makes that person tick and keeps him or her up at night. It’s also inspiring to listen someone talk about a passion and see that person’s eyes glow with love and energy.
When we’re all born into this world, the only meaning in life was to survive (Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).
But we all know if you’re reading this, you don’t need to worry about food, water, or shelter.
As we grew up as kids and teenagers, most of us just wanted to have fun, seek entertainment and joy. Basically, short-term pleasure.
Anything else that lies in the future, be it the next few years, or even the next month, was not of our concern.
It wasn’t fun to think about the serious and important stuff. It was boring. Earning a living, paying bills, starting a family, raising kids. Simply put, it was the “grown-up” stuff.
When I was in my late teens, I didn’t like talking about what I’d wanted to do with my life. Because, firstly, I didn’t know, and secondly, I didn’t like thinking about it.
Why think of the future while I’m still young? I should be enjoying my youth and do what I want, not thinking about the tough questions of life. I can do that when I’m older. My meaning in life was just to have as much fun as possible while I could.
I always had this (obviously flawed and childish) mindset that thinking of the future should be done in the future. The truth is, most of us had been there. Some of us might still think like that.
“Why should I plan for someday in the future when I don’t even know what will happen tomorrow?”
Yes, no one can predict the future, and there are many things out of our control. But it is in our best interests to identify the controllable aspects of our lives and do our best to turn the odds in our favour.
Our life depends on what we do with it.
I doubt it’s a coincidence mentally older people understand that idea very well while mentally younger people ignore or are even oblivious to it. The latter group tends to focus on happenings out of our control, blaming this and that.
I, too, thought the world was against me. I didn’t realise my own childishness blinded me from the obvious facts about how the world works – those who wallow in self-pity will never succeed; only those who suffer to pursue meaning in life will.
“He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Most of us wouldn’t know what we want to do with our lives, at least not yet. We haven’t found the meaning in life that we’re willing to suffer for, and that’s normal. No one woke up one day and knew what to do with their lives.
Heck, I can’t even say I know what I really want to do with my life right now. But I do know I’d only want to focus on what I can control and what matters to me. That is, perhaps, the way we’ll find our meaning in life.
Call to action
Start thinking for your future self, if you haven’t been doing that.
It’s always better for an old mind to be living in a young body than the other way around.
You might not know what you want to do with your life yet, but hanging around more mentally mature people will eventually get you there. Our surroundings affect our mindset and behaviour a lot more than we think.