All human beings have limited capacities, which means that we only have so much to give.
When limited capacities meet unlimited choices, and the presence of death lurks in the backdrop, how we choose to spend our waking moments carries more weight.
If we spend too much time wandering aimlessly, we run the risk of falling short on our ambitions. If we throw ourselves entirely into our work, we miss out on precious moments with our loved ones.
The questions that then arise have been debated by prophets and philosophers for hundreds of years. What constitutes “the good life?” What is a meaningful way to spend our time? Is there a higher purpose that we can aspire to?
All these questions translate to why the f*ck are we here and what the hell are we supposed to do?
It is more likely than not, that there is no right answer to these questions.
Nihilists believe that life has no meaning and we shouldn’t waste our time trying to ascribe it one. Academics commit themselves to a life of continuous learning and artists dedicate themselves to creating their life’s work. Monks practice conquering their minds while priests and pastors try to conquer their hearts.
The options are endless but regardless of which path we choose, we will all experience periods of meaninglessness and existential despair.
If the purpose behind why we do what we do is not supported by something bigger than ourselves, our convictions will crumble.
We can recreate ourselves often and find new purposes to temporarily satisfy us, but eventually we will return to a state of meaninglessness.
Below are three arguments for incorporating service to others into our lives and why they are worthy principles to rely on in times of existential despair.
1. Minimizing Suffering: A Buddhist Perspective
In Buddhism, desire is at the root of all suffering. Unfortunately for us, it is also part of the human condition.
Our desires are unlimited and as we continuously attempt to satisfy them, we find ourselves in an endless cycle of craving pleasure and material goods. Being stuck in this cycle is what Buddhists refer to as ignorance.
Buddhists see life as an inherent form of suffering and that all human beings are destined to suffer. At first, this perspective seems extremely discouraging, however, early practitioners of Buddhism understood that accepting this principle was the key to liberation.
Once we accept that we are destined to suffer, we can stop trying to escape it.
When we stop trying to escape suffering, we begin to understand the nature of it and the pain that it inflicts on so many.
It becomes clear that one of the most meaningful ways we can spend our lives, is to alleviate as much suffering for others as possible.
2. Scarcity vs. Abundance
Our brains are not designed to make us happy; they are designed to help us survive.
The amygdala, which is part of the limbic brain, overemphasizes scarcity and alerts us to safeguard our resources and keep an eye out for threats.
This has been a valuable trait in our evolution; however, an overemphasis of scarcity leads to heightened levels of anxiety, disconnection, distrust, and eventually isolation. It leads to an “everyone for themselves” mentality because we walk around with the belief that we never have enough. This is also a form of suffering.
The quickest way to re-train our minds from living in a state of scarcity to one of abundance is to willingly give away a portion of our resources.
When we do this, we reinforce the belief that there is a lot more to go around than we think. We also become more adept at spotting abundance around us. In turn, we get to see the impact of how much value our resources can bring others.
3. The Sneak-Attack: Indirect combat with our ego.
A life of service is one of the greatest ways to counter our ego.
Our ego fights desperately to stay in control, to be the center of attention, and to make sure that all our whims are taken care of.
The ego is notorious for tricking us into pursuits of happiness only to land us in situations of despair.
When we share our resources, we remind ourselves that we can live without many of the things that our ego tries to convince us are necessary for our well-being.
If we have unhealthy relationships with time or money, giving them away willingly in service of others is an effective way to reclaim them. When we do this, the resources that we believe are so imperative to us lose power over us. They no longer hold dominion over our thoughts and emotions. This is another form of liberation.
If we are perpetually fixated on promoting our own interests, we are unable to see the suffering of others. Incorporating service to others in our lives provides us with purpose in the face of meaninglessness and despair.
Being of service to others is perhaps the simplest answer to one of life’s most complex questions.
Muhammad Ali said, “what you do for others is the rent you pay for your place here on earth.”