the meaning of life is just to exist
is it really that simple?
I’ve been reading a lot recently.
I’ve also been writing a lot, and currently have probably 50 unwritten posts sitting in my drafts folder. I open a draft every time I have a new idea, but it takes some time before each post comes to fruition and I hit the spot of what I’m trying to say.
That’s why I thought, rather than trying to edit those posts, why not write about something else? Why not write about all the books I’ve been reading?
Just in 2022, I’ve already read 9 books. I am very proud of myself, as I’ve never had a habit of reading even though it is something I deeply enjoy. Now I’m happy to say it’s part of my daily habit. When I take a bath, before I go to sleep, I open my kindle and read.
I read a book last week called Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa. The protagonist, Sentaro, is the manager of a store selling dorayaki (a Japanese pancake filled with sweet bean paste). One day, an elderly woman, Tokue, comes into his store and seeks work, offering him some sweet bean paste she made. To his surprise, it is the best sweet bean paste he has ever tasted. Though she is perceptibly old and her hands are blemished due to disease, Sentaro decides to hire Tokue.
A deep friendship forms between them as Sentaro learns about Tokue’s illness, Hansen’s disease. Upon further research, he learns that people with this disease were largely segregated for decades in Japan due to the public’s fear of its infectious nature (which they are wrong about).
One day, a customer asks Tokue about her blemished hands, and sales begin to plummet at the store, as stories go around about her disease. Tokue decides to quit the job and return to the sanatorium, where she is once again isolated from society.
Tokue and Sentaro’s friendship deepens, as they begin to write a series of long letters to each other. Sentaro reveals,
“I'm embarrassed to say, but I didn't always keep to the straight and narrow. I just bumbled along, not knowing what to do with my life, really. Whatever I did never worked out. At one time I wanted to be a writer. But I never write a word these days. I never became expert in dorayaki either. I'm just a waster.”
Tokue also used to wonder what was the purpose of life as well, especially since she and many who struggled with the illness, were not able to accomplish much in their lives. She says,
“I (used to) believe that life has no value if a person is not a useful member of society. I was convinced that humans are born in order to be of service to the world and to others.
(But) I began to understand that we were born in order to see and listen to the world. And that's all this world wants of us. It doesn't matter that I was never a teacher or a member of the workforce, my life had meaning.”
And I thought that was so beautiful.
And especially relevant, given this capitalist age, in which our value is so often determined by our productivity and output. I used to be hard on myself too and felt useless, especially during periods of unemployment. I even felt worthless at how un-accomplished I was compared to my peers at companies like Google, Facebook, and the like.
But the truth is, our value isn’t determined by how much output we can generate. It’s kinda like how we are loved as babies. We don’t need to do anything. Just by existing, we are loved unconditionally.
And it is particularly specific to those with Hansen’s disease, in which some of them died at a very young age, or were never able to live in the world beyond the sanatorium and accomplish the dreams they had. But their lives were not meaningless. The world is still changed just by them being there and existing and noticing things.
Just as Tokue says,
“If I were not here, this full moon would not be here. Neither would the trees. Or the wind. If my view of the world disappears, then everything that I see disappears too. It’s as simple as that.”
“that no existence is devoid of meaning, and that even the humblest of beings has a valuable contribution to make to the world in which we live”.
So, don’t be too hard on yourself. Sometimes, all you have to do is notice and listen to the world, and that’s all it asks of us.