I find that directly facing the fact of one’s eventual death to be extraordinarily liberating. It makes one realize that life is precious and should not be wasted. It does not matter at all how much money or possessions you have when you die. Now that my own children are grown and educated and no longer dependent on me, there seems to be no point at all in accumulating more wealth or possessions. In fact, the opposite is the case, I have consciously started reducing the amount of things I own. I try not to buy anything that I don’t really need or that does not serve some fairly direct purpose. My main indulgence is books which I still continue to buy.
The only thing that matters (at least according to my philosophy of life) is whether you leave the world a better place for having been there. It is not easy to reassure oneself that this is true, since we can delude ourselves so easily about our own worth. We use up a lot of the Earth’s resources in the course of living a full life. What have we given back in return for this generosity from nature?
One benefit about getting older is that one doesn’t give a damn about many things about which one worried a lot about when younger. You don’t worry so much about trying to impress the people you meet. You worry a lot less about clothes and fashion and what people think of you or your ideas, so you are freer to say what you think and do what you really want to. It is not that I have become a total slob or am oblivious to those around me. I try to be as considerate as I can to others but the circle of people whose approval matters strongly has shrunk sharply to those who are close to me, and the approval of those outside that circle matters less and less as time goes by. Seeking some vague generalized approval seems pointless.
If you are lucky in life, you will have developed a few close friends that you can depend on and with whom you share your life. If you are lucky, you will have worked at something that gave you a lot of satisfaction.
In the Hindu philosophy of life, this attitude to one’s last stage of life, where one deliberately lets go of all the attachments one has to worldly things, is carried to the extreme and one becomes a sannyasi, where one leaves behind everything, family, friends, and all possessions, and seeks personal enlightenment as a itinerant mendicant, dependent solely on the kindness and charity of strangers for one’s needs. I am not going to do that. That life has a certain kind of romantic appeal but also strikes me as somewhat self-indulgent in an ascetic kind of way. Its roots lie in the belief that one has some kind of immortal soul that one must prepare for the next life or for life after death. Since I do not believe I have anything that will survive me, such a goal seems pointless. The good thing about it is the attitude that material possessions become increasingly irrelevant as one approaches death.
The goal of enlightenment for its own sake also does not appeal to me. What is the point of my being enlightened unless I can use that knowledge to improve the world? I do not seek enlightenment but I do seek knowledge. My thirst for learning about the world has grown even greater with the realization that the time left for learning is short. For example, I am now much more choosy about what I read, what films I watch, and how I otherwise spend my time, though I am not obsessive about filling up my time with activities.
One obvious question is why bother to learn more things when that knowledge will die with you? We all die and all our possessions will also decay and decompose. Nothing physical or tangible is really permanent. The only things that last for a long time are ideas. Because unlike material possessions, knowledge does not really die. Apart from the pure pleasure that learning brings, knowledge is the only lasting thing we leave for succeeding generations and my goal is to learn as much as possible, understand as much as possible, and share that knowledge and understanding with others, so that they may build on it and pass it on to others.
Knowledge is the only legacy worth leaving.