Are You Alive?
Presented by Blake Linton Wilfong -- The Wondersmith!

Not long ago, I found an old article from one of the first issues of The Reader's Digest that seems remarkably pertinent to modern life, and questions that have come up in recent movies like American Beauty and Fight Club. Read it, and you'll see what I mean. Be sure to read my conclusions afterward too.

Are You Alive?
by Stuart Chase
from the September 1922 issue of The Reader's Digest
condensed from The Nation

There seems to be an ascending scale of values in life, and somewhere in this scale there is a line--probably a blurred one--below which one more or less "exists" and above which one more or less "lives".

I have often been perplexed by people who talk about "life."

Americans, they tell me, do not know how to live, but the French--ah, the French--or the Hungarians, or the Poles, or the Patagonians. When I ask them what they mean by life they do not advance me an inch in my quest of the definition of life.

What does it mean to be alive, to live intensely? What do social prophets mean when they promise a new order of life? Obviously they cannot mean a new quality of life never before enjoyed by anyone, but rather an extension of vitality for the masses of mankind in those qualities of "life" which have hitherto been enjoyed only by a few individuals normally, or by large numbers of individuals rarely.

What is it which is enjoyed, and how is it to be shared more extensively? Can we hold life on a point for a moment while we examine it?

What, concretely, is this "awareness," this "well-being?" I want in a rather personal way to tell you the facts as I have found them. I want to tell you when I think I live in contradistinction to when I think I "exist." I want to make life very definite in terms of my own experience, for in matters of this nature about the only source of data one has is oneself. I do not know what life means to other people but I do know what it means to me, and I have worked out a method of measuring it.

I get out of bed in the morning, gulp coffee and headlines, demand to know where my raincoat is, start for the office--and so forth. These are the crude data. Take the days as they come, put a plus beside the living hours and a minus before the dead ones; find out just what makes the live ones live and the dead ones die. Can we catch the verihood of life in such an analysis? The poet will say no, but I am an accountant and only write poetry out of hours.

My notes show a classification of eleven states of being in which I feel I am alive, and five states in which I feel I only exist. These are major states, needless to say. In addition, I find scores of sub-states which are too obscure for me to analyze. The eleven "plus" reactions are these:

I seem to live when I am creating something--writing this article, for instance; making a sketch, working on an economic theory, building a bookshelf, making a speech.

Art certainly vitalizes me. A good novel, some poems, some pictures, operas, many beautiful buildings and particularly bridges affect me as though I took the artist's blood into my own veins. There are times, however, when a curtain falls over my perceptions which no artist can penetrate.

The mountains and the sea and stars--all the old subjects of a thousand poets--renew life in me. As in the case of art, the process is not automatic--I hate the sea sometimes--but by and large, I feel the line of existence below me when I see these things.

Love is life, vital and intense. Very real to me also is the love one bears one's friends.

I live when I am stimulated by good conversation, good argument. There is a sort of vitality in just dealing in ideas that to me at least is very real.

I live when I am in the pressure of danger--rock-climbing, for example.

I feel very much alive in the presence of a genuine sorrow.

I live when I play--preferably out-of-doors at such things as diving, swimming, skating, skiing, dancing, sometimes driving a motor, sometimes walking.

One lives when one takes food after genuine hunger, or when burying one's lips in a cool mountain spring after a long climb.

One lives when one sleeps. A sound healthy sleep after a day spend out-of-doors gives one the feeling of a silent, whirring dynamo. In vivid dreams I am convinced one lives.

I live when I laugh--spontaneously and heartily.

In contradistinction to "living I find five main states of "existence" as follows:

I exist when I am doing drudgery of any kind--adding up figures, washing dishes, answering most letters, attending to money matters, reading newspapers, shaving, dressing, riding on street cars or up and down in elevators, buying things.

I exist when attending the average social function--a tea, a dinner, listening to dull people talk, discussing the weather.

Eating, drinking, or sleeping when one is already replete, when one's senses are dulled, are states of existence, not life. For the most part I exist when I am ill.

Old scenes, old monotonous things--city walls, too familiar streets, houses, rooms, furniture, clothes--drive one to the existence level. Sheer ugliness, such as one sees in the stockyards or in a city slum, depress me intensely.

I retreat from life when I become angry. I exist through rows and misunderstandings and in the blind alleys of "getting even."

So, in a general way, I set life off from existence. It must be admitted of course that "living" is often a mental state quite independent of physical environment or occupation. One may feel--in springtime for isntance--suddenly alive in old, monotonous surroundings. Then even dressing and ishwashing become eventful and one sings as one shaves. But these outbursts are on the whole abnormal. By and large there seems to be a definite cause for living and a definite cause for existing. So it is with me at any rate. I believe that I could deliberately "live" twice as much--in hours--as I do now, if only I would come out from under the chains of necessity--largely economic--which bind me.

I have indeed made some estimates of the actual time I have spent above and below the "existence" line. For instance, my notes show that in one week, of the 168 hours contained therein, I only "lived" about 40 of them, or 25 per cent of the total time. This allowed for some creative work, a Sunday's hike, some genuine hunger, some healthy sleep, a little stimulating reading, two acts of a play, part of a moving picture, and eight hours of interesting discussion with various friends.

It may be that the states of being which release life in me release it in most human beings. Generally speaking, one's salvation is bound closely with that of all mankind--the ratio of living, growing with that of the mass of one's fellow-men.

OK, back to the Wondersmith! This article neatly addresses my own feelings on the subject of life, the universe, and everything. It seems that for most of us, the equation of life doesn't balance: we spend a lot more time unhappy than happy. And if that's so, wouldn't we be better off dead? As Shakespeare put it, "To be or not to be: that is the question." Shakespeare's answer was that we can't be sure what the afterlife is like; it might be even worse! Alas, that's not a very convincing argument. Logically and mathematically, it's a good gamble to try replacing something known to be bad with something completely unknown and thus equally probable to be good or bad.

I don't advocate suicide, but a radical change of values and lifestyle might do some of us a world of good. It certainly worked for Kevin Spacey's character in American Beauty (except of course for the abrupt and undeserved ending). Exactly what you change is up to you. Bashing your friends' faces a la Fight Club probably isn't too clever, but trading in your job for one with less worry and responsibility--even if it pays less--could be the thing for you. If you can manage to survive on the income from a part-time job, maybe you'll find that freedom is more valuable than anything you can buy with your present income.

It worked for me. I used to work for a prestigious government think tank, a NASA contractor. Great pay, great benefits, superb retirement plan. Problem was, I was totally burned out after seven years. Even trips to Las Vegas couldn't cheer me up; the most delightful week-long vacation doesn't make up for months of drudgery. Luckily for me, a secretary at my workplace realized I was thinking of quitting and informed me of impending layoffs. I hung in there a little longer and got a great severance package, plus unemployment compensation.

Now I live with my parents and work at home building websites. I make a fraction of my previous salary--no more trips to Nevada!--but on the whole I'm far happier now than I ever was when I was a "Yuppie". Indeed, I've found that there are lots of inexpensive ways to entertain oneself, especially on the Internet. For example, there's this cool website called The World of the Wondersmith...

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