Waking Up to the Gift of Aliveness

On Christmas day 2017 the New York Times printed a front page article with the intriguing title Waking up to the Gift of Aliveness. The author of this article is Harvard Philosophy Professor Sean Kelly. He tells us how, in going over some old lecture notes, he came upon this quote:

The goal of life is not happiness, peace or fulfillment. It is aliveness.

Harvard Philosophy Professor Sean Kelly

Professor Kelly attributes this concept of aliveness to the 17th century philosopher Blase’ Pascal. According to Professor Kelly, aliveness is difficult to define. It is easier, he says, to describe its opposite, which is lifelessness.

Think of the way that life really can become lifeless. You know what it is like: rise, commute, work, lunch, work some more, maybe have a beer or go to the gym, watch TV. For a while, the routine is nurturing and stabilizing; it is comfortable in its predictability. But soon the days seem to stretch out in an infinite line behind and before you. And eventually you are withering away. They are not just devoid of meaning but ruthless in their insistence that they are that way. The life you are living announces it is no longer alive. (New York Times, December 25, 2017)

How do we bring more aliveness into our life? Professor Kelly, citing Pascal, tells us there are two natural but equally flawed approaches to overcoming this feeling of lifelessness.

The first approach might be called spontaneity. Spontaneity is the constant search for new and different experiences in the outer world around us.

The second approach might be called rationality. It is the attempt to use our mind to find meaning and purpose in the ordinary events of our life.

Both of these responses Prof. Kelly regards as “flawed”.

Spontaneity: Trying to find aliveness in the outer world around us

This first approach concludes that our life is empty and it needs more juice. Rather than dealing directly with these feelings of emptiness, we run away from them. We turn to the outer world to stay busy and active. We cut ourselves off from our inner life and stay on the go. Our hope is that by staying active on the outside, we will not notice the emptiness on the inside.

What is missing in spontaneity is the understanding that important experiences in the outer world need to be followed by reflection in the inner world. Without this, we do not learn from our experiences. If we do not gain any depth of insight, we cannot sustain a sense of aliveness. Spontaneity in the outer life needs to be balanced by a full and rich inner life.

Rationality: using our mind to find meaning and purpose in our life.

Pascal’s second approach for finding aliveness is to look for meaning and purpose behind the everyday routines of our life. This involves exploring the world of ideas. But “meaning” and “purpose” are only concepts. They are abstractions. They have no substance in and of themselves. There is no meaning or purpose unless we ourselves project it onto the ideas and concepts we have embraced. We think we have found something eternal when in fact we have actually put meaning into that which we have embraced.

Professor Kelly then asks: “What could it mean that the goal of life is aliveness?”

He gives us two examples of aliveness to help clarify his question.

1) Consider “the love you feel gazing at your lover’s face. When you are in love you are alive; the whole world vibrates with significance. It is natural to want to hold onto that aliveness to make it last forever, to find its source”. But the more you look at what a human face is, the less it seems capable of doing what it does. The object of love, as an object of love, dissolves at looking at it.”

In this example of aliveness, Prof. Kelly is telling us that aliveness has an extra dimension to what we normally experience. In this example, he says that “the world vibrates with significance.”

2) When you feel alive, your past, your present and your future somehow make sense together as the unity they have always promised to be. …It is the validation of what came before just as it is the preparation for what will come after. When you see in others the sense that what is happening now will stay with them, will remain alive as a future memory that can sustain then in some other moment…that moment vibrates with an energy it otherwise would not have.

Again, Prof. Kelly tells us in this example that aliveness “vibrates with an energy it otherwise would not have”.

Professor Kelly is telling us that aliveness is something over and above our experience of normal life.  Aliveness is — by nature — not sustainable. 

And so, we ask: how do we bring more aliveness into our life?

Professor Kelly admits that he himself does not how we can live a life of sustained aliveness. He concludes: “A complete definition of (aliveness) is no doubt beyond our grasp.”


What if Prof. Kelly’s examples of aliveness are not some extraordinary experience, but rather a glimpse of a fuller life that we have not learned how to sustain?

Waking Up to the Fullness of Life

Could it be that there is more to life than what we in our modern society normally experience?

Could it be that a lack of aliveness reflects a lack of being fully engaged with life?

If we are not fully engaged, we have to ask: what is missing?

Professor Kelly has given us—perhaps unknowingly—a suggestion of where to look. In his two examples, Prof. Kelly describes an extra dimension to life. In the first example he talks about life as “vibrating with significance”; in the second example the moment vibrates with an energy it normally doesn’t have. These appear to be, for Prof. Kelly, rare and fleeting moments. But perhaps they are not.

Could they be a window into a more capacious life that we have yet to discover?

If our experience does not embrace all aspects of life, then we are not experiencing all that life has to offer.

If we are not experiencing all that life has to offer, we are not fully alive.

If we are not fully alive, we have to ask: what are we missing?

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