There’s something inspiring about this idea, this phrase, this call to arms: Live life to the fullest! Who doesn’t want that? It seems so obvious, an a priori good. Our pop songs and commercials and movies portray this at every turn. I feel like every pop song I ever hear — which, I admit, is not very many — is all about being extreme out on the town. Painting it red. Lighting it up. It’s life as the X Games.
After all, when you’re on your deathbed and look back on your life, you don’t want to have regrets, right? What is sadder, we are lead to believe, than wasted potential? Than having squandered our days watching TV, scorning life and love? Shouldn’t we be climbing Everest and bungee jumping off Costa Rican bridges? Shouldn’t we be writing songs, poems, novels? Shouldn’t we be leaving our mark on the world? And even if our ambitions are less grand — marriage, children, losing 12 pounds — shouldn’t we be seizing the moment?
But what is it to live life to the fullest? If I am sitting peacefully, joyfully, on my floor staring the ceiling and you are anxiously riding your motorcycle through the streets of Hanoi, who here is living life to the fullest? Is living life to the fullest an external event or an internal experience?
In talking about the relationship between the external and the internal — a perhaps false distinction but hear me out — Osho says, more or less: You’re a smoker who enjoys the repetition of the act of smoking. The boring act of repeating the same thing over and over relaxes you. Ok. And then someone tells you that smoking is bad. So you take great measures and you quit. Great! And then you discover meditation and you start repeating your mantra over and over. The boring act of repeating the same thing over and over relaxes you. Nothing has changed. There is no difference between smoking and repeating your mantra.
All sorts of people will rant and rave. But smoking will kill you! Meditation is good! Smoking is bad! It contributes to Big Tobacco! Sure, all of this is true. But life is killing you, just as it’s keeping you alive. (And is the point of life not to die? Really?) So maybe it’s better to meditate than to smoke because you feel better giving your money to the self-help establishment rather than the tobacco companies. I can see that. But you haven’t changed. You’re no closer or farther from peace.
I know people who feel a compulsion to do extreme things. If they’re not doing extreme things, they feel bad, like they’re doing the wrong thing. How can I be watching TV when I should be scaling a mountain? The demand to live life to the fullest becomes a commandment, a morality, that makes you feel lousy about yourself.
It seems to me that living life to the fullest demands an internal movement of infinite acceptance of life itself. If you’re relentlessly judging your life — I should have a better job; I should travel more; I should have a cooler boyfriend or girlfriend; I should be married; I should have children; I should be anything other than what you are this very moment — then you are not living life to the fullest. You’re living for an ideal from the past or future. You are avoiding life.
A demon comes to you, writes Nietzsche, and says: Everything that’s ever happened to you and ever will happen to you — every tear, every burp, every feeling, every kiss and sneeze — has happened and will happen infinitely, how do you respond? Do you feel liberated from the regime of morality and judgment? Or does the reality of the very life you lead crush you like the greatest possible weight? (“The Greatest Weight” from The Gay Science).
I often let my house go. Dishes pile up. Dust bunnies gather and colonize. Dirty laundry litters the floor. The utter banality of cleaning and washing crushes my soul. I should be thinking! Writing! Fucking! I should be doing anything besides cleaning. And then my house becomes more and more grotesque and I feel more and more agitated. Not cleaning my house because I want to be living life to the fullest has the funny effect of making me not live life to the fullest, of making me anxious and agitated and self-loathing.
What I do in the world does matter. The line between the internal and the external is infinitely porous. It’s a seam, not a border. Living life to the fullest is something that happens; it is something you do. Only it’s not something you do out there per se. It’s something you do right here, right now, in every moment. My formula for greatness in a human being, writes Nietzsche, is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.
This, to me, sounds like living life to the fullest: to see every moment as necessary, as beautiful, precisely because it happened or is happening. And this — to love every moment as necessary whether you’re hiking the Himalayas, vomiting from a bad burrito, or washing dishes — is an internal movement.
So, on my deathbed, I don’t want to be thinking about the life I’ve lived, assessing it, judging it, interpreting it. No, I want to be present with my dying body, experiencing my death to the fullest.