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The following is a transcript of this video.

When we think of the forces that shape us, we often look back in time. We look to the events of our youth, to the influence of our peers, and to the way we were treated by our family. But while our past, or at least our conception of it, influences our sense of self, it is also true that an event of our future, and our choice of how to cope with it, also shapes who we are and who we will become.

“. . .the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

In most cases it is our society that provides the mechanisms for helping us cope with our death. But not all societies provide adequate solutions to our existential dilemma, some in fact promote ways of life that are more likely to end in regret than in the feeling of a live well lived. In this video we are going discuss why the modern Western world finds itself in this very predicament, while also offering an alternative approach to dealing with our existential dilemma which is based on the life and ethos of Leonardo da Vinci.

For much of history, myths have been the tool humans have used to ward off the fear of death. Some myths achieve this with the promise of a better future. If we can just live in the manner prescribed by the myth, then eventually a turning point will be reached where our suffering will be a thing of the past and a blissful existence will fill the horizons of our future. The most famous myth of this type, or what is called a myth of arrival, is the Christian myth. Christian dogma teaches us that our earthly suffering, and even our death, are not meaningless events in a meaningless universe, but the necessary steps for arrival in heaven.

The rise of science, however, and the skepticism this invited, made the belief in an afterlife less tenable. But the death of God only destroyed one manifestation of the myth of arrival. In place of the Christian myth a new myth has emerged in the West, and it too promises a better future. This new secular version of the myth of arrival is built around the idea that our suffering is not so much tied to our mortal nature, but instead is a product of what we lack. If we can just find a high paying job, move into a big house, meet the perfect partner and all the while bathe in the admiring glow of others, then we will experience a turning point in this life. Our problems will wither away and our money and social status will make possible a life free of struggle and strife.

Ironically, in replacing the belief in a transcendental heaven with the belief in an earthly one, the modern myth of arrival has not become any less illusory. For in our more clear-sighted moments we all know that much of what ails us cannot be cured by mere additions to our wealth or social status. To make matters worse the modern myth of arrival does little in terms of helping us cope with the fact that one day, we too, will be sealed in a box and dropped in a hole. For on the one hand we may be one of the few who scales the ladders of social success to great heights, but if this has come at the cost of years or decades consumed in a job we dread, and to the exclusion of activities that are more intrinsically rewarding, then it will be difficult not to feel that we have wasted our life in vain pursuits. On the other hand, if we struggle to attain the wealth and status which our society deems as necessary to enjoy life, then it will difficult not to judge ourselves as failures and to be consumed by frustration and resentment. Success or failure, the modern myth of arrival does little to affirm our existence in the face of our ever-approaching death.

Fortunately, clinging to the illusion that a better future awaits, in either this life or the next, is not the only way to cope with our existential dilemma. An alternative approach is to learn to live more fully now, for as Leonardo da Vinci famously put it:

“Just as a well-filled day brings blessed sleep, so a well-employed life brings a blessed death.”

Leonardo da Vinci

But what is a well-employed life? da Vinci’s motto was “relentless rigour” and this gives us a clue as to the meaning of his statement. A well-employed life, according to da Vinci, is not one in which we spend our days striving after wealth or fame, nor is it one where all our free time is spent jumping from one mindless pleasure to the next. A well-employed life is one in which we choose intrinsically rewarding projects and consistently put in the time necessary for their achievement. Looking at da Vinci’s life reveals that this was how he lived. From the painting of his masterpieces, to his attempts to invent the first flying machine, to his incredible work on human anatomy, da Vinci’s life was full of projects.

Most of us, however, are not fortunate enough to have wealthy patrons fund our creative endeavours, but so long as we have some free time, we can mimic da Vinci’s life to a degree. A small amount of time devoted daily to a creative pursuit, the mastery of a skill, or some other project, will over time cumulate into impressive results, and open up unforeseen possibilities. The greater our skills mature, the more likely it will be that we can discover ways to integrate our passions with our careers. But even if we make no money from our projects, and even if not a single soul acknowledges our efforts, we will still benefit from this active way of life for several reasons.

Firstly, living the well-employed life is the best way to counteract one of the root causes of human suffering, namely the feeling that we are stagnating. Stagnation plays tricks with the mind, it causes us to question the point of our existence and provides a foretaste of what awaits. To counter these feelings, we need change. We need the becoming that demarcates the living from the dead and the well-employed life is a vehicle for moving us in this direction. The longer we stick with this way of life, the more we will learn of what we are capable, and the less we will be haunted by the spectre of a wasted life. 

The second reason why a well-employed life is beneficial even if it ushers in no external rewards, is because this way of life permits access to the optimal state of consciousness known as flow and so gives due regard to the much counselled wisdom that we should live more for the moment. A state of flow is not accessible on command, but instead emerges spontaneously when we are fully engaged in activities that require us to make use of our skills to a maximal degree. When achieved the state of flow alters our perception of time, causes our sense of self to seemingly drop away and the mere participation in whatever we are doing becomes the reward in and of itself. Unlike sensuous pleasures, which have diminishing returns, the more flow we induce in our life the better.

While the well-employed life is a good life regardless of whether it produces external rewards, it is nonetheless the best approach for reaching the ideal situation whereby we can support ourselves financially through activities we find intrinsically rewarding. Many people dream of such a life, but few attain it for the simple reason that they never get very good at what they do. Devoting consistent time to the pursuit of intrinsically rewarding projects, however, will force us to cultivate character traits such as discipline, tenacity and grit, while also strengthening the all-important capacity for prolonged focus. With these tools in our arsenal we will place ourselves on a path for achieving the excellence required to make this dream a reality.

If external success does come our way, however, we must not allow it to divert us from the path of the well-employed life. For sometimes external success, especially if it comes too quickly, can be more of a curse, than a blessing. The comforts and pleasures that money and fame offer can tempt us off course and lead us to a way of life that is worse than what preceded it. The playwright Tennessee Williams discovered this after he skyrocketed from obscurity to fame:

“The sort of life which I had had previous to this popular success” he wrote “was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching, but it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created. I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. This was security at last. I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed.”

Tennessee Williams

The struggle free life that so many of us hope for is, as Williams suggests, not a life the human organism is suited for and this is but another strike against the modern myth of arrival. We are a restless creature and our restlessness is tied to our mortal nature and cannot be tamed by external success. Our restlessness can only be tamed through the continual exertion of effort towards ends that we deem worthy. And for this reason the well-employed life, is the good life and is the type of life worthy of a blessed death:

We measure ourselves by many standards,” wrote William James. “Our strength and our intelligence, our wealth and even our good luck, are things which warm our heart and make us feel ourselves a match for life. But deeper than all such things, and able to suffice unto itself without them, is the sense of the amount of effort which we can put forth. . . He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero.”

William James, The Principles of Psychology

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