Sunday, December 02, 2012

Living on the Edge of Existence

Reading Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums made me wonder whether my life should be more exciting.  While exploring this, I had the following conversation.

Martin: You are bored because you are not living on the edge of existence. Why don't you go travel around India with no money?
Me: I might die.
Martin: Exactly. A comfortable, safe life is boring.

Martin then tried to convince me that bourgeois comfort and safety are the enemies of an exciting life.  I started searching for plane tickets to dangerous destinations.  Fortunately, I had the next conversation.

Me: I'm trying to live on the edge of existence.
Rishabh: The thing is, I already do that. With deadlines.
Rishabh: Yesterday, I almost died.

This made me realize that different people have wildly different perceptions of what it means to live extremely.  In Dharma Bums, while the Kerouac character Ray Smith binge drinks and is essentially homeless as he hitchhikes across the country, the Gary Snyder character Japhy Ryder leads an ascetic existence of writing and scholarship.  When Japhy tells Ray about The Book of Tea, Ray says, "Those guys got high off nothing, hey?"

And so I found in Dharma Bums the answer to my question.  Japhy Ryder's life is unquestionality extreme: he abstains from material luxuries and enjoys spending time on the edge of civilization.  But Japhy carefully prepares enough food and sleeping bags for their trip into the wilderness.  But Japhy makes sure they have enough time to get where they are going before dark.  And Japhy lives fully and enjoys beauty as much as anyone: he is lucky to be able to get "high off nothing."

To live on the edge of existence, one does not necessarily need to abandon absolute comfort and safety. It is certainly easier if what is around you is new, interesting, or a life-or-death situation. But over-approximating the boundaries of existence is just one way to live on the edge. Through mindfulness and conscious consumption, it is possible to find the edge with greater ease and accuracy. Challenging oneself and demanding precision can be as thrilling as fighting for survival. This approach certainly seems more sustainable: while Jack Kerouac died young of alcoholism, Gary Snyder is still writing today.

A comfortable and safe life is boring, but comfort and safety are relative and personal. Introspection and thoughtfulness could go further towards living fully than impulse-buying tickets to somebody else's adventure.

2 comments:

Elena G said...

Great post, Jean. I've been thinking about the same topic, lately, so your post is timely and appreciated!

Practical HDL, Berkeley said...

Thanks, Jean. I enjoyed reading this.