Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Life's Purpose

My blog entry today is a bit more serious, retrospective, perhaps even a tinge philosophical. As one might expect, there is usually a trigger for such a state of mind ...

Last week I learnt the sad news of the sudden passing of an ex-colleague and friend. He was relatively young - only in his early 40s - and apparently he died not from illness, but from a freak accident that injured his leg, and apparently caused some circulatory complications (a blood clot, I heard) leading to him suddenly collapsing one morning.

There was quite a large group of people at his wake which was held at the void deck of the HDB block where he presumably had lived. I met some old colleagues and friends that I had not bumped into for many years. He was obviously well-liked and active in his organisation and community. I remember him as a very pleasant chap, smart, professional at work, relatively quiet but always with a ready smile and an approachable demenour.

As I had not seen him for a number of years, I wonder what he had been doing during that time. Was he happy? What were his life goals, and did he attain most of them? Were there things he would have wanted to do before he passed on so unexpectedly? What did he see as his life purpose?

Life can be so frail. Such a sudden passing could happen to any of us. I wonder when it is our time to go, would we have regrets? Would we have attained what we set out to do? Would we consider ourselves as having led a purposeful and worthwhile life? And what is the purpose of our life anyway?

This reminds me of something a Filipino friend of mine, Larrem, once introduced to me. Apparently the French novelist & playwright Honore de Balzac proposed a three part recipe for a full life- a sort of three paths to immortality:
  • Write a book
  • Raise a child
  • Plant a tree.
I've been quite intrigued by the simplicity of these prescribed actions, and have thought about them at some length. Is leading a meaningful life really so simple? Eventually I concluded that Balzac intended them in a more metaphorical rather than literal sense. Each simple statement could be "expanded" into a spectrum of actions.

For instance, "write a book" might be about documenting one's knowledge and experiences so that future generations may benefit from what one learnt or went through. It could include writing a book, but is not limited to just that. It could also be diary-keeping, journaling, capturing scenes in art or photography .. yes, even blogging. The essence is to leave something that records what you have learnt or felt to benefit or bring joy to others that come after you.

The "raise a child" part is not necessarily just about bringing up one's own offspring, although again that is obviously included. It also refers to developing people, recognising and enhancing talents, and generally helping other succeed if one is in a position to do so. Here again there's an element of imparting knowledge and wisdom.

The third part "plant a tree" is not simply about gardening or even mere agriculture. To me it is a shorform for conservation and replenishment of the environment, and generally leaving the world in the same or preferably a better natural state than when we came into it.

As for looking at my own life through Balzac's lens, well ... I figure I've done some of the first two items, but I can't lay much claim to the third. Perhaps time to give it more consideration.


Anonymous said...

For me,

To write a book is to leave something behind which you think is worth leaving behind to benefit others. It is a test if you have lived your life well. A wasted life has nothing to record or discover to share with others.

To raise a child is to continue to live in the best way possible. Not continuing to live yourself here but letting life continue with a fresh start and only because it started with you. And it is no good to just perpetuate your genes but also to combine with another in the long process of evolutionary progress.

To plant a tree, this to me represent the strongest statement of eternal values. A tree is strong, tall and sturdy. It is also generous as it is the habitat for many living things. It is sustaining and nuturing. It is what the first two act aspire to but just in case could not achieve.

Sing Cher

flightstick said...

Balzac certainly did something good: he wrote a novel, Cousin Bette (published 1846), which I studied for my BA in Eng Lang and Lit. Until today, I could recall in my imagination the richly textured lives of many of the characters, especially the ugly cousin Bette herself, the merchant Crevel and the sex-crazed Hector Hulot.

The novel is one of several brilliant 19th Cent works that have helped developed my understanding of life and society. Others include George Eliot's Middlemarch, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, and Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. I am still re-reading and enjoying them.

As for planting trees, perhaps the most inspiring example is the Hong Wu Emperor (Zhu Yuan Chang, founder of the Ming Dynasty, and the first man in history to defeat the fearsome Mongols). Hong Wu's reforestation began in the 1390s. Nanjing was reforested with 50 million trees in 1391; in 1392 and again in 139, peasants were ordered to plant fruit trees in Anhui, Hunan and Hupeh. A total of over one billion trees were planted in this decade alone, greatly replenishing both the timber and food supply of China.