How do we find out that we really lived?
By Zayna Mian
When I was only 16 years old to answer for on this earth, I asked myself whether I was presumptuous to address the question of what it means to have really lived. So I turned to the lives of people in my immediate environment, such as family members, to gain insight into the most important determinants of a meaningful existence.
As Julius Caesar once remarked: “Experience is the teacher of all things”. This made me wonder if experience helps us live life to the fullest. The first person that came to my mind as the embodiment of this example was my 94-year-old grandfather. When I talk to him, I feel like his vast experience of nearly a century has really strengthened his character. Surviving World War II, followed by the stormy partition of India and Pakistan, the greatest human mass migration in history, living through personal tragedies including the death of a beloved younger brother, and serving as village chief and chairman of a leading corporation all made the trajectory of his life remarkable . Conversations with him are usually peppered with anecdotes that reveal his interpersonal skills, his understanding of people, his ability to appreciate different perspectives on life, and his adaptability to changing times, which he has gained from a variety of experiences. More importantly, he often tells how each new experience has revealed more truths in life and has consistently strengthened his personality. The diversity of his experiences has given him extraordinary wisdom and perseverance, which explains his overall success in life.
Another aspect of my grandparents’ lives that I came across in my search for the drivers of a meaningful life was the impact they had on their fellow human beings. Until recently, I never associated the term “really lived” with my grandmother, who, at 92, probably shared many of my grandfather’s experiences before her death two years ago. She embodied warmth and security and was content in a life that was surrounded by her children and grandchildren. To see her family well settled and happy was her vision of a meaningful existence. Your values have been passed on to our family and, to some extent, to our village community over generations. My grandmother’s impact on life around her cannot be an exhaustive list and is often not mentioned in the credits. However, the emotional support and care she showed her nine children and her husband, although limited to her immediate family, had a major impact in paving the way for a next generation with strong morals and values. This shows that the fulfillment of one’s duty as a parent or spouse with devotion and conscientiousness is also a life to the fullest. On the other hand, my grandfather’s role as village head gave him the opportunity to influence the lives of many people beyond his family. He has set up schools and medical facilities, resolved domestic and community disputes, helped people find work, arranged marriages for orphans, advised people on local business opportunities, and represented the community to government institutions. To this day he goes to the office of an NGO he founded every day to listen to the problems of the disadvantaged in our society and tries to help in some way. It is this facet of his life in which he touches the lives of hundreds that convinces me that I too should try to emulate his journey. Overall, I feel like my grandparents’ lives show how harnessing opportunities to make a positive impact, no matter how big or small, is a great example of living life to the fullest.
Learning from experience is another dimension that helps us give meaning to our lives. As I shifted my focus from my grandparents ‘generation to my parents’ generation, I realized that the knowledge we gain from experience or otherwise also helps shape the résumé. My father seriously embodies this view, taking every opportunity to learn from reading books, listening to informative podcasts, and engaging people in meaningful discussions on a range of topics. His version of a meaningful existence focuses on the pursuit of knowledge and opportunities to gain new perspectives coupled with efforts to develop others in the workplace and in the community. He admires eminent writers such as Dale Carnegie, who has written books on self-improvement and interpersonal skills, and Malcolm Gladwell for his unique perspective on coping and success in the modern world. These books pass on useful knowledge to countless readers to help them overcome and adapt to life’s hurdles. Another example is that of my mother, who went back to university when she was about seven years old to do another postgraduate degree in environmental management. As a child, I asked myself why she took on an extra burden when she already had a seemingly sedentary life. I can now relate it to her desire to live life to the fullest by taking opportunities to improve her knowledge and skills and to contribute to the development of society.
As I looked beyond my immediate circle to the lives of remarkably selfless philanthropy figures like Abdul Sattar Edhi or scholars like Alexander Fleming, I realized that the key factors to effective living were the same ones I had identified in my family members. Edhi has selflessly made it his life goal to help people in need. In addition to running the Edhi Foundation, he personally continued to bathe corpses that were not picked up in the city’s slums and looked after unwanted babies left on his doorstep until his death in 2016. Even today, his donated eyes continue his legacy of unparalleled generosity. The fact that Edhi’s efforts touched so many other lives underscores the value of his own life – a life really lived. Another example is that of Alexander Fleming, whose search for knowledge led to the discovery of penicillin, a life-saving drug that helped change the lives of many other people.
Personally, and on a much smaller scale, working with Akhuwat, an interest-free microfinance organization in Pakistan, has given me insight into the possibilities of positively influencing the lives of less privileged members of society by helping to fund their self-help initiatives. Just a little look into this world gave me a sense of fulfillment and motivation to tackle other projects through which I can be of use to others and give meaning to my own path. My trip with Akhuwat taught me that experiences also help give you direction in life. At the same time, however, I also have the feeling that not all experiences are the same; some have a more sustained impact and opportunity to learn, and are essential contributors to fulfilling lives. In my case, this experience found to be an eye-related health issue that required extensive doctor visits, multiple medical exams, and medication that, in just six months, made me feel like several years of aging being. It’s probably because by facing up to difficulties I’ve increased my appreciation for the simple pleasures in life and shifted my focus more to enjoying things in the moment, like sitting in the garden and watching the melodious hum of the birds or reading a book for my grandfather. I also came to appreciate my mother’s favorite quote, “The only constant in life is change” from Heraclitus, as my health experiences forced me to be more realistic than idealistic and to find ways to cope with and adapt to my changed circumstances. Through this painful time I realized that experiences at any age can teach us what life is really about, and each new experience gives us another opportunity to reassess our path for the future, provided we are willing to learn. These experiences, in turn, can motivate us to positively influence the lives of others. The pursuit of knowledge with the intent to help others can span a wide range of areas from business and law to medicine and psychology. I personally draw inspiration for knowledge acquisition for the benefit of others from scientists like Alexander Fleming. Perhaps one day, as a budding biochemist, I too can contribute to scientific research, so that when I look back on my life I have spent a lifetime pursuing knowledge to contribute to a greater cause and feeling that I, too, have an effective existence.
Experiencing life to the fullest can bring about many different things, depending on the meaning of life itself. Life is an inherently turbulent journey; During this journey we are constantly evolving, growing and learning, both mentally and physically. Life brings with it both its fair share of challenges and rewards, and is in part about our circumstances, our fate, and the actions and responses that follow. Meaningful life is therefore not easy to quantify as we all have different circumstances, goals, desires and expectations in life. Reassessing where we stand in our lives and whether we have added value can help us adapt and define our life path. At the end of the day, only we can be the true judge of what makes us feel like “lived” life based on our purposes and goals. For me, collecting and learning meaningful experiences, striving for knowledge and touching the lives of others all contribute to making life worth living.
Zayna Mian is from Lahore, Pakistan and was 16 years old when she wrote this article. She is a prolific reader eager to pursue her interest in writing short stories, blogs, and ultimately novels. Zayna enjoys playing the piano and also enjoys squash. She is passionate about scientific research and hopes to become a biophysicist one day.
Next post: Strength and Influence in Christianity