James climbed up the ladder until he reached the top of the bunker. He just called in a missile strike to his location in order to destroy this virus laboratory. He knew it would be the end. After saying goodbye to his loved ones, he looked at the vast and beautiful ocean for one last time, and accepted his final fate.

After hearing the news of his death, his colleagues gave him a final toast with these words:

The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

Why should we not focus on prolonging our lives? Humans are fragile creatures. There is no guarantee that we will live tomorrow, let alone for decades. Given this, we should then not aim to live as long as possible as it is a foolish endeavor. One disease, one accident, and your life will end regardless of how much you prepared.

What is the difference between living and existing? When are those moments when we feel truly alive? It is when our lives seem to have purpose. Not just in having a career or a vocation, but when you feel connected to someone or something else.

Perhaps James knew this for a fact which is why he so easily decided to give his life for the sake of his family. He had not merely existed, he genuinely lived. He had completed his mission.


This scene prompted me to search for the origins of that quote. I found that it was attributed to an American novelist named Jack London, in a piece called Credo. The full text showed a clear picture on what the author defines as living, and not just existing.

I would rather be ashes than dust!

I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze
than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor,
every atom of me in magnificent glow,
than a sleepy and permanent planet.

The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

Jack London

Would you rather be ash or dust?

What does it mean to be ash, and to be dust? Ash is the end result of a burning material. For something to become ash, it first needs to be consumed by fire. Dust, on the other hand, require no such thing. When a material disintegrates through time, its particles become dust. When we think about dust, we think of something that settles in our things and that we need to clean.

Look at the words associated with each:

Ash burning, consumed, fire

Dust disintegrate, time, settle

Which of these set of words feel closer to what your life is like right now? Are you consumed by an inner fire, striving for something, raging against the dying of the light? Or are you content, settled, and just waiting for your time and eventual disintegration?

Will you live your life glowing in a brilliant blaze, knowing that in the end you will be ash, or just let things be, accept dry-rot, and turn to dust?

Is a long life a better life?

The credo asks us: would you rather be a brilliant meteor, or a permanent planet? Is living for a long time preferable to living a shorter one but one that glowed and shed light on the world?

Think of the names you often read in the history books. Chances are, they are people who are more like a meteor than a planet. They come, they make a mark, and then disappear.

No matter how long, our lives are what we make of it. The Stoic philosopher Seneca tells us that the hindrance to living a good life is not its duration, but on how we use it.

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.

Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested.

But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.

So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it…

Life is long if you know how to use it.


The choice is yours alone

This isn’t to say that you should live your life constantly on the edge, pursuing your passions and dreams endlessy. In the end, the life we live is ours alone, and the choices we make depend on where we are placed in this world, and how we make use of it.

Not everyone can be a “hero”. A great story is no longer great if everyone shared the same narrative. However, let this be a reminder for us to take account on how we are living our lives. Are there times when we are more passive than we should have? When are the moments when we burn inside, ready to turn to ash rather than disappear as dust?

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