What is the mean­ing of life?

Zul An­dra, Editor-in-chief

Esquire (Singapore) - - This Way In -

To me, the an­swer can be found in the ques­tion. A nod to René Descartes’ “Cog­ito ergo sum” or “I think, there­fore I am”. But be­fore we strain our necks nod­ding, let’s visit the land of the ris­ing sun where the mean­ing of life could ei­ther sway to a tea cer­e­mony or to stab­bing a knife in your own belly. What­ever rocks your philo­soph­i­cal boat, man.

There is a Ja­panese con­cept of liv­ing called iki­gai— which means “a rea­son for be­ing”. There are four fun­da­men­tals in this con­cept that one must at­tain. They are: what you love; what the world needs; what you can be paid for; and what you are good at. Imag­ine each of these fun­da­men­tals tak­ing up four dif­fer­ent cir­cles to form a Venn di­a­gram, the goal is to find your cen­tre, your iki­gai. Or the goal could even be to just google it be­cause pic­tures.

To at­tain iki­gai, you can’t half-bake your dance steps and go for, say, two out of four of these fun­da­men­tals. (Do you make a cup of tea with only wa­ter? No.) You can’t short­cut iki­gai. If you are only about what you are good at and what you love, you have at­tained “pas­sion”. This is a strug­gling artist work­ing at Star­bucks. If you are only about what you love and what the world needs, you have at­tained “mission”, and you’re ei­ther An­drew Garfield as a Por­tuguese Je­suit priest spread­ing the word in Ja­pan ( Si­lence, 2016) or Garfield sav­ing the world as Peter Parker ( The Amaz­ing Spi­der-Man, 2012/2014).

I first came across iki­gai when I was hav­ing drinks with an editor from an­other mag­a­zine. It was a rainy Mon­day evening. The mag­a­zine and news­pa­per in­dus­try is fac­ing its most chal­leng­ing era. The old guards have no idea what to do with the dig­i­tal land­scape and the new faces have opin­ions that could ei­ther in­habit Mars or kill us on the way there. I was find­ing an­swers from the bot­tom of a glass of whisky. Glass after glass, whisky after whisky. (Aside: my de­signer asked if it’d be eas­ier to find the an­swers if the glass was smaller. In­trigued I was, but tequila shots on a Mon­day I will def­i­nitely not have.)

The editor brought up this spec­tac­u­lar con­cept of iki­gai and all the lights re­flect­ing on the wet sur­face of the road seemed to light up to me. Al­most blind­ing me. Like, “Woah, man. Can we turn down these lights of epiphany for a sec­ond?” That bright. He knew his iki­gai like it was a con­ti­nen­tal break­fast buf­fet at a cheap hotel. For him, it all pointed to a deep and uncompromising drive for self­ish­ness. “It’s not very Ayn Rand,” he told me. “Ayn Rand’s po­si­tion is self­ish­ness for the greater good. I don’t care about the greater good.” He then men­tioned his be­lief in the ide­ol­ogy and the phi­los­o­phy of Satanism. For con­text, he’s an ab­so­lutely nice chap.

Ac­cord­ing to a BBC ar­ti­cle, there are many books about iki­gai “but one in par­tic­u­lar is con­sid­ered de­fin­i­tive: Iki­gai-nit­suite ( About Iki­gai, 1966).” The book’s au­thor, Mieko Kamiya, posits that there’s a sub­tle dif­fer­ence in the mean­ing of iki­gai which is sim­i­lar to hap­pi­ness. “Ja­panese peo­ple be­lieve that the sum of small joys in ev­ery­day life re­sults in a more ful­fill­ing life as a whole,” the BBC writer added.

Iki­gai is an ac­tion­able con­cept. It’s no good writ­ing it down in a note­book as part of a col­lec­tion of “things to do”. That’s the dif­fer­ence. It isn’t a rea­son for be­com­ing, it is a rea­son for be­ing. To the peo­ple of Ok­i­nawa, Ja­pan, where the con­cept of iki­gai is said to have been founded, the rea­son for be­ing is to get up ev­ery morn­ing. It could be some­thing as sim­ple as that, but more of­ten than not, it is the sim­plest things that are the hard­est to at­tain. Find your rea­son for be­ing and you will dis­cover the mean­ing of life. Iki­gai out.

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