Over human history, people have created many, many different metaphors for what life is. Different metaphors lead to different conclusions.
Life is a stage performance
When you were born, your body was probably given a name and legal identity to distinguish it from the other bodies. This is the name of the character that you’re playing in the stage play called “Your Life”. There’s no script for this play – it’s improvised by you and all the actors around you, moment to moment.
Some people play their characters straight, and take everything seriously and literally. Others treat the play as a comedy and take nothing seriously. Most people operate somewhere in between, shifting back and forth between comedy, drama, tragedy, and other genres.
Everyone wears a costume most of the time. Some of the characters judge other characters based on the costumes they wear. Changing the costume changes the way that other characters respond to the character that you’re playing – sometimes dramatically.
People wear masks, both metaphorical and literal. Sometimes they confuse the character they play with who they really are. Some people play the same role regardless of which part of the stage they happen to be on at the moment – work, home, golf course, bar, ghetto street corner, luxury hotel, aircraft seat. Others change the character they play to fit the context of the people and the stuff that surrounds them that time.
Some actors play for the audience, trying to be the hero, wanting others to like their character. Others play for themselves, based on internal motivations and drives.
Life is a game
We are all players in the Human Game. Your game piece is your physical body. The most fundamental rules of the game are the laws of physics, from which the behavior of material things is understood at different scales of time and space. Many less precise but equally useful “rules of thumb” have emerged from the observed behavior of living and non-living things. Other imprecise rules emerge from human organizations, societies, economies and so forth. There may also be non-physical, spiritual laws to which our game pieces are subject but they are either less exact or less well understood.
No one knows how long their game piece will last before it’s worn out. A person can play the game in a near-infinite number of ways before the game is over for their physical body. Treat others as allies or adversaries. Try to accumulate as much physical stuff or promises of physical stuff (i.e. money) as they can. Learn and explore as much as they can. Do as little as possible and avoid anything that looks like work or a challenge. Lots of people will attempt to tell you how to play the game. You can play the game of treating them seriously or play the game of ignoring them. It’s up to you.
The basic rules on this game board are the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics. The derived rules pretty much correspond to whatever you persuade the other players in the game to let you get away with. Beyond that, there are no rules – you play the game however you choose. There are no rules, just consequences.
Life is a test
Everything you do in life is a test, adding up the ultimate test which is life itself. If you pass the test then it means that you’re worthy and you can go on to harder and harder tests. If you don’t pass an important test then it means something very significant about your identity and value as a person. It means you have been judged and found wanting. Be very careful about this.
It’s very important that you do well when others test you or when you test yourself. For some, getting credentialed is the most important thing they can do – the more letters after a name means more value as a person. For some, getting the right numbers on the bank statement, the scale, the measuring tape, the spec sheet of their car, residence, or spouse, is what matters. For others, it’s more abstract – living in alignment with their chosen personal values, for example.
The specific nature of the test isn’t important – what’s important is that you recognize that you are being tested and judged and measured from the moment you emerge from the womb. For that matter, you were probably tested extensively even before you were born. Choose your tests well and pass the big test of life as well as you can.
Life is a war
The world is full of other people who are opposed to you getting what you want. In order to triumph in the war of life, you have to be prepared to fight for what’s yours – your home, your family, your money, your stuff. People are going to try to take what’s yours, and to make sure they don’t, you’ll have to hit them first and hit them hard. Sometimes this is a metaphorical war, as in politics, the workplace, or the condo board. Other times the metaphor becomes literal in the case of street gangs, police officers, armies, guerrilla fighters, or terrorists.
We are all soldiers and warriors for some kind of cause. We’re all putting our lives on the line for something, fighting for something. Even the most apathetic person, through his action or inaction, is fighting for something specific (though he may not know it, and might not care if he did know). But this is not for you – in the war of life, you should fight for something meaningful, something that really matters.
In a war, you have allies and you have enemies. Choose your allies well and they will cover your back when you’re putting lead on target. Choose the wrong allies and they will crumple under fire and be useless to your war effort. Choose your enemies well – a David and Goliath fight may be impressive, but don’t martyr yourself in a heroic but pointless gesture.
Pick your strategy and your tactics carefully. Maintain situational awareness at all times, and know your enemy’s mind better than he knows himself. Hit the enemy hardest in his weakest points, invade his decision cycle, and induce chaos, uncertainty, and fear in his thought process. A disorganized and terrified enemy is ineffective and unable to fight, easily scattered, overwhelmed, and then destroyed completely. Move your forces silently and quickly, and be elusive, mysterious, and invisible like angry ghosts. Create your army to be as intangible as smoke, as concentrated as the tip a spear, and as deadly as the stroke of an axe.
And in the war of life, always remember the dictum of the master warrior Sun Tzu – the peak of skill is to subdue the enemy without fighting a single battle.
Life is a party
Everyone’s experienced pleasure and pain at times. During your time attending the party of life, it’s important to seek out the former and avoid the latter. As a great man once said: “There is no right or wrong. There is only fun and boring.” Since life is a party, seek out fun and avoid boring. This can apply to people, situations, cities, actual, literal parties, or anything else. Seek out fun and avoid boring. What else is there?
Because you’re looking for the epicenter of the party that is life, there’s one rule and that is how the party you’re at makes you feel. Thrilled and excited is good. Apathetic and bored is bad. Don’t feel bad to leave one party and go to another if you get bored.
Some activities are better than others for giving you that rush of fun and pleasure that makes life worthwhile. When you structure your life situation so as to have more skydiving, race car driving, and yes, partying itself, and less financial accounting, quiet contemplation, or being alone in nature, then you are truly living your life as though it’s one big party.
All pleasure, no pain. All fun, no boredom. Life is good. Party on.
Life is a dream
Have you ever had that feeling, where you’re not sure if you’re awake, or still dreaming? Guess what? You are still dreaming. None of this is real.
Your experience of life here is just a dream – a dream taking place inside your own mind, a dream that you can observe due to your consciousness, a dream made up of thought.
A dream mind observing itself dreaming. How can this be real? Your real self is formless, beyond this world, and impervious to being changed or harmed by anything from this illusory world.
Your happiness, security, well-being, inner peace – all of these things don’t come from this dream world. They come from your true self. Anything that happens in this dream can’t possibly touch who you really are because who you really are is formless, not of this illusory world of form.
When you really get this, at a deep level, your experience of life will transcend your wildest dreams.
None of what I have told you is true. None of it is real. These are just stories. Maybe some of them resonated with, inspired, or offended you. That doesn’t matter.
The only thing that should matter to you is the answer to the question “what is life?” that you create and speak for yourself.
So what is it?
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