The Difference Between Living and Being Alive: A Happy Account of Disillusionment and Ultimate Triumph

I learned a lot abroad. I learned a lot about people, myself, and emotions. I learned a lot about European food. Most of all, though, I learned about fulfillment and what it means to be fulfilled.

I thought I was going abroad to live and grow. Really, though, I went abroad because “everyone should go abroad at some point.”  I was going abroad because it was The Right Thing To Do. It would make me Special. It would make me Whole. It would be Living Life To The Fullest.

There are a lot of people who say things like this. There are a lot of people who will tell you that you’re living wrong if you don’t do things like this. There are a lot of people who will make you feel like a loser because your life is not dramatic.

They’ll tell you that you’re not sucking the juice from your existence, that you’re not living a worthwhile life, that you’re insignificant and meaningless because you’re not grand or bold or daring. They’ll say things that belong on inspirational posters of entirely unrelated landscapes or skies with Photoshopped clouds. They’ll tell you things that fit neatly into a Facebook status that everyone will like and share because that kind of insincere sincerity is what sentimental Millennials consume. We eat that sh*t up.

These trains of thought are championed by places like Upworthy and Instagram and all those other wonderful little traps, all of which convince normal people to doubt their own lives because other people are living “better.” They call existence into question just because it’s “normal.” You’re a normal person? You’re missing out.

And think about it: it makes sense. We love Upworthy because it’s bite-sized endorphins: little tidbits of “amazing people” doing “amazing things,” tidily packaged in three-minute videos for us to gobble up with our mason jar salads and kale chips on our lunch breaks. It’s easy. It’s palatable. It gives us a quick dose of our aspirational porn—this time about charity or adventure, not just travel—and then we go about our business, feeling a little less extraordinary, but also impressed with ourselves because we know about the special people doing those special things and that makes us special, too.

There seems to be a trend, according to which “existing” is defined as a humdrum lifestyle consisting of a desk job, early bedtimes, and obligatory and perhaps insincere yet nevertheless faithfully performed phone calls to one’s mother. “Existing,” so I’ve heard, is life stripped of the extraordinary, a life timidly played out within pre-established boundaries, a life of IRA workers and accountants. “Existing” is corporate. “Existing” is boring. “Existing” is being lost and purposeless without realizing it.

“Living,” however, is the antithesis of flat, meaningless existence. It’s wild, unruly, and sweet—overflowing like a honey jar, half-crystallized with stories gobbed up like strawberries in jam, rich and colorful and expansive. It’s rebellion, courage, passion, fire. It’s letting loose, it’s flying free, it’s hitting the gas with no brakes. It’s jumping into Cuban waterfalls, diving into Chilean caves, crawling up Indonesian cliffs. It’s the enviable life.

People will tell you that “living” requires some element of extremity, some underlying urgency embedded in our lifestyles. Are we “living” if we don’t travel? Are we “living” if we work standard corporate jobs? Are we “living” if we don’t go out on the weekends? Why the hell are we alive, if not to do those things? Why simply exist, when one can live? We need only the courage to grasp life with both hands! But alas, few of us have it, so we’re mostly unalive! The world is a tragedy!

I call bullshit.

We are susceptible to these little jealousies because we’ve been trained to compare our lives to others’. We’re constantly competing, even if we don’t realize it, and nowadays it’s not just about who makes the most money or wears the fanciest suit. We compete over life—who’s living the most exotic adventure, who’s going to the coolest parties, who’s seeing the most beautiful sunset, who’s helping starving children in the least developed country with the least pronounceable name. Or we’re competing over aesthetically pleasing photos of green smoothies and artfully-arranged cupcakes that we probably won’t eat anyway. We want to be one of them: we want to be people with flashy, unorthodox lives. We want to be on rooftop parties in L.A. or saving gazelles in Africa. We want to be anywhere but where we are.

If everyone thinks like this, though, we’ll never really be happy. We’ll only learn to appreciate our lives through the sepia windows of nostalgia. 

I say (to myself, and to anyone who relates to anything I’m saying): stop chasing happiness, and maybe it’ll come around. Because that’s what I’ve found throughout my whole life—emotions only blossomed naturally into magnificent sensations when I wasn’t worried about how great they were. Hope, fulfillment, happiness—those things that dwell within us, that fill up our empty spaces and radiate out from us and burst from us in a light that can’t be dimmed—those things reveal who we are without the anxiety of competition, inadequacy, and neuroticism. Those things bring out the best of us: our brightest laugh, most natural smile, most contagious warmth, most honest embrace. Those things make us feel worthwhile and make our lives worthwhile. They’re not bought by “worthwhile” actions. They blossom from within, the fruit of a worthwhile life.

When I was abroad, I noticed that the people who live the wild lives aren’t always the people I wanted to be. Sometimes they were, yes; some people have magic, and that’s unstoppable. But having magic and being adventurous aren’t the same thing. Magic isn’t defined by action, it’s defined by spirit, and that’s not something one can simply do. Magic can’t be faked. Magic can’t be forced. Magic can only exude, captivate, and permeate. Magic is contagious. It can be absorbed, but it can’t be copied.

Many of want to be An Interesting Person, but being around Interesting People didn’t make me Interesting, nor did it convince me that being Interesting is all that interesting anyway. Most of the time, I admired their courage and I enjoyed their stories, but I wanted no part of that life. Those people weren’t happier, nor had they stumbled upon some Secret Key of Life that all “normal” people were missing out on. Most of the time, they’re just as lost as the rest of us; sometimes they’re even more so. Sometimes the people who seem to have it all—adventure, good looks, good fortune, good relationships, good prospects—sometimes those are the very people who are seeking the most. Sometimes they’re the most lost, the most hollow. Sometimes they’re running from the same things you are. Sometimes they’re chasing the same thing you are, and just because they’re living a different life doesn’t mean that they’re any closer to finding it.

I’ve found that the people who genuinely feel the most worthwhile are the people who don’t need to uncoil along the razor’s edge. They are the people who inspire the most honest, most uplifting inspiration: those open hearts who radiate warmth, energy, zest, and happiness; the people who brighten a room just by walking in, the people everyone else turns to because it’s just so wonderful to bask in their inexplicable glow. Those people aren’t intoxicating and inspiring because they’ve done cool things. They’re intoxicating and inspiring because, whatever they do, they do it honestly and they do it earnestly. They live life with zest and passion, and it doesn’t matter what kind of life that is. It’s not because they’re wild (which they might be, who knows?). It’s because they’re sincere.

When I was abroad, I didn’t feel more alive. I was existing in a different place. In the week that I’ve come home, though, I’ve felt more alive than all those months away. And trust me—I’m not doing anything special. I’m not planning a trip to Budapest or hiking in the Alps or dancing on the table at Oktoberfest. I’m working as a waitress and reading and making coffee. That’s all. But you know what? I’m laughing again. I’m so happy. I feel more alive than I ever have.  I’m back in the world I love, a world of laughter, hope, and optimism. I feel fulfilled because I know I’m where I belong.

And this, I suppose, is the key: there is a difference between living and being alive, but it’s not about what you do. It’s about who you are and what you feel. It’s not about being grand. It’s about being sincere.

Don’t assume that the experience makes the emotion. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Hollywood-style adventure makes happiness. Don’t let yourself be convinced that your life is only what you do, because your life is so much more than that. Your life is what you feel—those little emotions that swell up and radiate out and fill up the spaces between our beating hearts—so whatever you do, do it with your whole heart.

So do what you want—living is whatever you damn well please. If you’re an IRA worker or accountant and you absolutely love your life, keep loving your life. If you’re living in Vanuatu lending humanitarian aid to the children displaced by Cyclone Pam, then you’re probably not reading this, but I trust that you’re sincere in your work. If you’re a stay-at-home dad who simply loves his kids, then you’ve got everything you need. If you’re a superstar performer in your local subway station, rock on. If you’re a career woman who doesn’t want children but has five dogs and no interest in kale salads, then keep doing you. We can all live our purposes. They’re not all going to be grand, but they are all worthwhile.

Because being alive isn’t defined by what we do, but by who we are. Whatever you are doing, do it sincerely. Do it earnestly. Do it with purpose. And that will inspire you to know bounds you’ve never known, and it’s not because you’ve got an endless list of wild stories or you’ve met the most celebrities or you’ve seen the most exotic animals. It’s because you’re true to yourself and you believe in yourself, and that’s a kind of strength that no one can replicate.

Don’t live “the worthwhile life” intentionally. Live your life intentionally, and then it really will be worthwhile.

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