I was seeking chaff in the bookshelves when I sat down to re-read Richard Wright's Native Son, and found the germ of our existence instead.
Probably subconsciously inspired by the NFL national anthem protests (Go Kaepernick Go!), when it came time to pick an old book from among the dusty shelves for reevaluation I was drawn to Wright's 1940 novel in which a young black man in Chicago inadvertently murders a white woman and is surprised to discover that this act of destroying life becomes his key to being truly alive.
At first something about this doesn't quite seem right, but the apparent contradiction arises only when your definition of being alive idolizes the mere existence of organic life. To most of us today, and white pre-WWII Americans, life can be simplified to a heartbeat and consciousness because in our world they are sufficient to imply all the rest of what we take for granted daily. Precisely because we have few constraints on how we choose to live our lives, we don't feel compelled to list all the other things we associate with being alive--love, security, freedom, opportunity, etc.
Poor Bigger Thomas, though, was a poor, uneducated southern black man living under Jim Crow who had none of these things, and no prospects for ever having them. He did not feel alive, but craved it just as we all do. So when he discovered that he had committed the most egregious crime possible (touching a white woman, oh and killing her), he realized that it put him on a different plane from everyone around him, black or white. He had broken the unwritten rules of society, defied authority, and acted for the first time in his life. He had done something! As Write puts it, "It was an act of creation."
Simply put, life is power. The power to define your own identity, the power to make decisions about your own life, and the power to act on those decisions. Life under slavery and then Jim Crow denied generations of black Americans all of the freedoms our constitution guarantees, stealing from them the fundamental powers that make us feel alive. In a world that constrained his every breath, Bigger's only chance to have that kind of power was to break all the rules.
We don't have to break the rules to be alive, and yet we still often struggle to feel alive because we have forgotten what Bigger was only able to learn too late: living is doing. What makes us ALIVE is being able to make decisions, to control, to lead, to fight, to act, to DO.
Given our inherent freedoms, this actually shouldn't be that hard, but our society tends to make us feel like the only things worthy of doing are the stupendously big gestures: grow rich, become President, go to the moon. So when we realize that we are mere mortals and the scope of our doing isn't very grand, we feel like failures. The resulting insecurity undermines our happiness in a vicious cycle in which we perpetually seek an externally recognized badge of success that is doomed to mortify rather than sustain because life is, actually, pointless.
No, I'm not a Nihilist: the world is real (at least for us) and moral principals are very handy. I mean pointless in terms of goal-less. Life per se does not have targets for us; there is no objective, no purpose, no start, and no finish. Just a beginning and an end, and our satisfaction does not depend on where we get or even how long we get to try, but on how we bumbled along; on whether or not we were able to act, to do, to feel alive.
And this is great news! This is the cure for depression, apathy, sadness, and frustration! Because even in our constrained mortal lives, we have the ability every day to make decisions, to control aspects of our life, sometimes to lead others and, when necessary, to fight against obstacles to our taking action. In fact, we are often happiest when totally absorbed in the narrow minutia of a struggle. Ironically, the challenges that threaten our very existence are often the key to living to the fullest.
So make a plan, and start implementing it. One day at a time, not knowing where it goes or how long it will last, but knowing that you are alive just by doing it. My God, Nike was right! The secret to happiness really is
Just Do It!