For a while, all I could think about is “am I wasting my days?”
I work for an investment bank where our task is to identify accurate values of corporations for investors. Being philosophically inclined, I tend to ask deeper questions, like what exactly is the market, who defines these values, and why assume that there is an accurate value anyway. My questions usually get dismissed or overlooked due to the daily routineness and tedious nature of work, but during one instance I froze with anxiety when I was told: “Stop being so philosophical.”
The response startled me and left me in a daze for weeks. Although the response was within a very specific context, the experience of being told not to ask bigger questions, fundamental questions, questions that matter, was so unbearable, because it represented something larger.
My anxiety began in college, the time of identity searching, job searching, and soul searching, the time when most of us look for love and relationships. Questions of purpose and meaning began subtly creeping up on me and I felt like I was being reprimanded for existing.
Like most, though, I followed suit. I chose a study major, formed friends and hobbies, and accepted a job offer. I got married and rented an apartment. And so began my daily routine of work, sleep, and socializing; eat, pray, and love, with a rotating emphasis on each throughout the year. But the questions of meaning, of mattering, kept encroaching on my life. Was there a point to all of this? Ultimately, just one simple, but powerful, word: “Why?”
I like my job. I work for a great company, excellent pay, and the work is interesting. I am challenged at work and my colleagues are great. For all intents and purposes, I enjoy my job. But, I just keep asking myself: to what end am I working? I look at my forty and fifty year old superiors who have been doing this job for decades, and I get jaded and depressed in this oddly empathetic way, as if they were themselves depressed. I guess I just can’t understand how anyone can spend decades of time and energy valuing the US markets.
People have proposed solutions, suggesting that fulfillment can indeed be found. Some have encouraged me to contribute more to society like volunteering, giving more, and helping others. Indeed, while I spend my days servicing investors who play the stock market, looking to make money in our modern-day secondary market, I find myself jealous of the construction worker and the farmer, who see their efforts directly translate into production and contribution to society. Others advised that I pursue a more dynamic career, or to master a skill such as playing music or writing a book. Of course, many teach that I should grow intellectually or religiously.
But, with all that said, I still wonder whether teachers, farmers, businessmen, and priests live fulfilling lives, or are their lives just as absurd; a pointless routine like that of Sisyphus, the existentialist of Greek mythology, or Koheleth, who stated,
?מַה-יִּתְרוֹן לָאָדָם בְּכָל-עֲמָלוֹ
What profit does man have in all his labor?
Perhaps I do think too philosophically, but isn’t it a part of human nature? Just fast-forward your life thirty years, then rewind back to today, and ask yourself what significance your days are providing you. Is it money? Highly doubtful. Is it status? Stature lacks objectivity and will probably represent nothing real. Is it good times or moments of laughter? That fades. Religion? Probably too vague. Your family and friends? They just accompany you on this existential road.
The answer cannot be to just distract oneself; to hide behind the veil of pursuits and to sweep the problem under one’s designer rug.
Over time, though, I’ve learned to embrace this perspective as I struggle with these questions. The questions themselves are inspiring because they instill a healthy outlook and keep my priorities in check. To borrow a Heideggerian concept, the vanity of life is actually what makes my life meaningful.
It’s important to ask these questions, because they’re both humanizing and humbling. Perspective is key: facing a vast world, and feeling vulnerable to the countless days of routine responsibility, can either be depressing or humbling. I see it as human greatness, kind of like crying in front of one’s children.
These questions can’t be ignored, even if one tried. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught us, questions of meaning aren’t asked by man but faced by him; that life itself carries these questions and man can either choose to face them and respond, or stay distracted throughout his life. Perhaps that’s why it was so alarming to be told to stop being so philosophical, because it was a command to stop being human, to maintain my distractions.
More importantly, these questions keep me healthily grounded from my own ambitions. I have so much energy, craving life at every turn, and always moving to conquer and accomplish daily tasks and lifelong goals. But, all travelers have a destination. If life is only thought of as a journey, we are ultimately directionless. I’ve learned that having a sense of futility is a reminder that I am not always traveling; sometimes I have arrived.
And having arrived means to halt; to stop moving and start embracing; to pause from doing and retreat into being; to experience the unique moments in time. It is where I have learned to live from within-outward, and not from without-inward. The words "futility" and "meaning" are adjectives describing the outcome of tasks, but only "meaning" can also be used to describe the experience of moments. Being mindful and aware of the present is almost always meaningful. such as witnessing the sunset, staring into your lover’s eyes, and even a routine subway ride home. Futility lies in the outcome; meaning lies in the process.
And so, I’ve learned to appreciate the process of living; to live in moments of growing, rather than grow in moments of living. Reaching my goals has become secondary to appreciating the process of reaching my goals. Having appreciation gives life its soul. Without it our days would feel like lines of code in the algorithm of eternity.
Powerful moments now become clear. I cry in admiration for the single mother working two jobs so her child can one day live a better life. I experience a moment of clarity when I witness a stranger offering a sandwich to a homeless man. My heart skips a beat when I see a ninety year old couple holding hands sitting on a park bench. These moments are rich with life and meaning because of the appreciation involved.
So, as I sit at my desk valuing the US markets, I make sure to remind myself of these questions. I may not have an answer, and likely never will, but I still sit inspired, appreciating the moments and embracing life as it unfolds before me. Albert Camus was surely on to something when he wrote that the struggle of Sisyphus was actually his joy.
The question mark should therefore be moved:
What profit does man have?
In all his labor.
Aryeh is a financial analyst living in New York City.
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