What does it mean to live? Are you alive as long as your heart is beating and your brain is functioning? Or does really living require something more?
In 1952, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa addressed those questions in an ambitious film he called “Ikiru,” which translates “to live.” (Click the title for the trailer.) The film makes it clear from the beginning that Kanji Watanabe is going to die. We know this before he does. Watanabe is a lifelong bureaucrat who’s the section chief of the Public Affairs Bureau of a large city.
Watanabe has been living his life in the same way for decades. His wife is dead and he has devoted his decades to saving money and giving a good life to his ungrateful son. But after he realizes he’s going to die, he feels empty and alone. He realizes his life has been meaningless. With the help of a couple of other people, he explores what meaning life can have. He first pursues pleasure in a hedonistic way and then afterward realizes he feels a sense of life in a young woman who has worked under him.
Using her as his example, Watanabe suddenly figures out how to give meaning to his last weeks and months. Nobody knows he’s dying, but he throws himself into this purpose — and he finds redemption for himself just before he dies. The last scene in which we see him — which is part of the flashbacks in which co-workers are figuring out what happened to him — is a touching picture of a man at peace with himself after finding purpose. He tenderly sings a song from his youth about life being brief. (The picture above is a frame from that scene.)
There are a lot of themes in the film and this isn’t intended as an analysis of the film or its complexity. Instead, I’m simply interested in why most human beings live like Watanabe — drones who spend decades carrying out the will of others, but not really finding any meaning of our own.
This psychological mystery has become an obsession for me lately.
The question of why we’re so slow to understand which things really matter in life — and why we take even longer to realign our lives with those priorities, if we ever do — is the central mystery of human existence at this stage of my life.
We start out our lives sleepwalking — oblivious to the larger truth of what life might mean — and then some of us eventually start to slowly wake up to the realization that there’s more to life and start to vaguely understand we have the power to change ourselves if we dare. But like someone slowly waking from a deep sleep, we’re helplessly trapped between the world of numb death and the world of joyful life.
And we keep slipping back into the world of the half-dead, fearful of stepping confidently into the light of life and love and joy. Why we do this — why I do this, why you do this — is the mystery. It was while I was pondering these questions that filmmaker friend Andrew Poland suggested “Ikiru” to me — and I found that Kurosawa was brilliantly trying to answer the same questions 65 years ago.
The easiest way for us to get stuck where we are in life is to constantly say, “I can start changing my life — pursuing dreams, accepting love, living in peace — tomorrow or the day after or the day after. I have plenty of time.” But no matter how long you’ve already lived, your clock is ticking and the limited hours of your life are rushing by.
Waiting for tomorrow before you live or grow or love makes it more and more likely that it will be too late to do those things by the time you realize how important they are — and by the time you realize how much you’ve lost by doing other things instead.
At the end of every year, I hear many people lamenting that the year which has just passed has been horrible but asserting that the new year is going to be wonderful. I rarely say anything, but I always wonder what makes them think flipping a page on a calendar is going to change who they are — or change the decisions they’ve been making.
If you keep living as you have been — and making the same decisions based on the same kind of thinking — the new year isn’t going to be any different than the old one was. And then the years can pass and you can suddenly find yourself just like Watanabe — someone with money, prestige, position and respect, but never having lived or found meaning.
You decide what your life is going to be — and what each year is going to be. I decide what my life and my years are going to be. Neither one of us can go on blaming anybody else if we don’t like what we’ve been getting.
I’m responsible for my happiness and the meaning of my own life.
You are responsible for your happiness and the meaning of your life.
The new year can bring you the changes you need or it can be a repeat of 2016 or 2015 or 2014. You can even spend the next 30 years reliving the same deadness that requires numbing your feelings in order to survive.
Or you can choose to set aside your fears and start living. Not just existing, but really living. Only you can make that choice for yourself and do the difficult work of figuring out how.
Watanabe was shocked into action during his last five months of life and he was able to find meaning. Most of us won’t have the luxury of suddenly knowing we have only a few days to find meaning.
But whether we have six months to live or another 60 years to live, life is brief. Only you can give yourself lasting meaning. But most people never do that.
They never wake up. They sleepwalk right into the grave. Don’t be one of them.