A photo of me reading a book, sitting next to a pile of books
Another photo of me in the same scene

I had to have been around nine or ten years old when I was frequenting some local forums. I stumbled upon a post. Someone started a thread: what is the meaning of life?

I all but laughed, giddy as I had thought about this question thoroughly before, and was eager to show off. I immediately started typing a reply.

Ah yes, the age old question. I actually found the answer when I was thinking about this some years ago, I wrote, smugness seeping out of every orifice.

You see, it depends. If you’re looking for a general, universal meaning of life, then there is none. There is no universal meaning to life. Life is subjective. Therefore, your life is whatever you want it to be.

Overly pleased with myself, I hit Post Reply. That was the last time I’d think deeply about “the meaning of life” for the next sixteen-or-so years. Perhaps I had marked it in my head as “done”. Perhaps I didn’t want to waste time on what I considered was a solved problem, when the universe had so many other Great Problems to solve. Perhaps I was too scared to ask the next natural question to my own answer.

The next natural question, being, alright then. If your life is whatever you want it to be, then what do you want your life to be?

To this day I still don’t know.

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What do I want? is such a strange and foreign question when one has spent most of their lives thinking about nothing but survival. Which is a complete exaggeration for me, but desperately real for my parents. So in our family, the question has always been about what we need. Food, money, security. My parents put aside silly things like wants soon after they had me, and even more so when we immigrated to New Zealand. They tried their best to teach me to luxuries of want in this new land, but could not remember how to want themselves.

Being able to sit back and reflect on the things I want out of life is a privilege I’ll never be able to get over. A privilege all thanks to my parents’ hard work and sacrifice. There are so many in the world who cannot dare to think about life wants — their dreams must be diminished to needs: getting that extra shift to support their family, a lottery win to pay off the debt, or even just the rain to come. To be in a position where I am financially unburdened and confident that I’ll be able to secure a new job if my current one is lost — I almost have trouble believing it now.

So what do I want? How does one even begin to answer this question? A big part of me feels like I already have everything I want — and more. I live in a warm, safe, comfortable home. I have a loving family, an angel of a partner, the most wonderful friends. I never worry about food. I don’t even worry about rent anymore. I’m in a position where I can support my family. I can even sometimes buy drinks and food for my friends! Life is good, unbelieveably good.

Yet there is another part of me that feels like I will never be satisfied. I want to change the world. I want to make it better. I want people to be happier, healthier. I don’t ever want to see a family in poverty again. I want to tackle the world’s biggest problems. I don’t just want to tackle them, I want to solve them. Well, I want to see them solved. Our world is a tangled mess of multivariable calculus that no one will be able to predict, but I want to be at least moving the right variables.

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When I was little, I was terrified of death. Utterly, completely, stupidly terrified. I couldn’t come to grips with the fact that everything that I had known: my thoughts, my memories, sights, sounds, senses – everything would cease to exist. I would stop and look around in those moments, and try to comprehend: everything I’m experiencing now, everything, would be nothing. Everytime I started imagining the world from a third-person perspective I stopped myself. No, I told myself. Your life is not a movie. You don’t get to see what happens afterwards. I would lie in bed and stay up all night, just staring at the stars slowly traverse the sky because sleep seemed too close to the feeling of death.

If life was (universally) meaningless, I reasoned, then the only thing that (universally) mattered were the things we left behind after we die. So my goal was to leave something behind: something that contributes as much to the betterment of humanity as possible. Something good. Something that lasts.

When I was seven or eight, I took out a book from the library for the very first time. The concept blew me away — here was this gianormous repository of knowledge, and I could borrow whatever I wanted? I was obsessed. I gobbled up books like candy, each one made me thirst for more. I read the sciences, history, young-adult trash novels – I fucking read through entire encyclopaedias – I read everything. But it was the sciences that I enjoyed the most. And I think it was while reading a Horrible Sciences book about Newtown and Einstein that I came to the conclusion that working in physics and math would be the best way to contribute back to humanity.

The reasoning went like this: Lots of things make people happy and life richer, longer, nicer. But without functioning bodies, we can’t live these lives. Functioning bodies requires medicine. But research into medicine requires more fundamental understandings of biology. And understanding of biology requires more fundamental understanding of chemistry. You can see where this is going.

From then on, until I would eventually graduate with physics and math degrees, I was committed to becoming a physicist.

I don’t really know where I’m going with this story, I guess I’m just trying desperately to understand my own drivers. What do I want?

There’s more to unpack here, but mum is calling us for dinner now. For now, I’m digging out a file I closed in my mind for sixteen(?) years. I’m opening it back up again for the first time. That’s something.■

Photography by my incredibly talented sister, Aileen.

Tagged: personal life