On Living versus Existing

While reflecting on 2020, I said that throughout the course of the year, I felt like I had just existed, rather than lived. Some of my friends have asked me what that means, so I thought I’d take a moment to try and explain how I see it.

Ultimately, this is a subjective feeling, but based on ideas of what I think I’ve achieved externally, as well as how my mental state has been internally.

Standing on the outside and looking at my life the last year, I feel like I haven’t made much progress in my life in the last year. At least, I didn’t make much progress in the ways that I had wanted to at the beginning of the year. I didn’t have much of a social life due to COVID, didn’t really develop new friendships or relationships, and didn’t publish any papers. In a lot of ways, I was operating in survival mode: doing the bare minimum I need to get by and not drop various balls. That’s not something I’m proud of.

On the inside, I spent a large part of the year trying to deny or rage against the state of the world, rather than trying to make the most of the situation. Even when I made some measure of peace with the fact that there was very little in my control, it was hard to put effort into the things that were still up to me. Fundamentally, it’s this that leads to me feel like I existed, rather than lived. To me, being alive means growing or making progress in some important area of my life. It means actually doing the things that I can do, rather than just waiting for things to change or get better on their own. Unfortunately I don’t think I did as much of this as I could have, or would have liked to.

I was talking about all of this with a friend, when she remarked that she didn’t understand why I felt this way. She noted that to her, it seemed like I had done a lot of things: I did a lot of “inner work” which improved how I see myself and my perspective on life, I taught a semester-long class on my own for the first time, I moved to a larger, work-from-home-friendly house, made smart financial decisions, and had a nice Christmas tree in my own home for the first time. I managed to occasionally see some of my friends in a safe, socially distanced way and I also had a number of new experiences, liking playing video games online with people, for the first time.

And so we’re back to why this is a subjective feeling. Making progress and taking action in meaningful directions is important to my sense of feeling alive, but it’s often hard for me to recognize when I’m doing things that don’t fit into a pre-defined mold. I have a strong type-A streak: there is a (short) list of things that I feel like I should be doing or working towards, and anything else doesn’t really count. If I do things that aren’t on that list, it often doesn’t quite register as meaningful activity. For 2020, the main items on that list were (re-)building a social circle and relationships, and making research progress, both of which have been stymied by COVID and related stresses. I didn’t put much stock in things I did that weren’t on that list until someone else brought them up. This forms a feedback loop: because I don’t see the things I do that aren’t “on the list” (looking from the outside in) it feels like I’m not doing anything at all (looking from the inside out). And so the subjective feeling is that I am just kinda existing in the world, without doing anything to meaningfully engage with it, even if the more objective reality is more complicated and balanced.

I suppose all of this is a way of saying: be careful what you pay attention to. One of my themes for 2021 is to be more careful of being in the present moment, to pay attention to what I am currently doing, even if it seems boring or mundane, or not exactly what I would like to be doing. I don’t know what 2021 has in store for me, but I am hoping that instead of obsessing over what I can’t do, I manage to embrace what I can. More importantly, I hope I can give myself credit for the things that I do manage to do, even if I’m not checking off an ideal list. After all, as I’ve noted before: just to be alive is enough.

One thought on “On Living versus Existing

  1. You really need to take a week-long vacation in Florida. The mental health benefits from sun, sand, and most importantly, a large degree of normalcy would most likely more than offset any risk of serious outcomes from Covid to your young and healthy self, especially that you are probably taking Vitamin D already. If you care about not spreading it to the vulnerable people, many of whom will be vaccinated soon anyway, stay away from them for 10 days after you return.

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