There are three basic theories: (1) it’s all about sex [Freud]; (2) it’s all about power [modern social criticism]; (3) it’s all about fear of death [religion].
Unquestionably, all three loom large in human life. And they are intertwined; sex is partly eros but also partly about power; power is partly about sexual opportunity; and, perhaps, deep in our psyches, fear of death figures in both.
However, each of these theories is wrong, because human life is much too complex to be boiled down to one imperative. Nor, even, is it a combination of all three – at least not just that.
As important as is the sexual urge, the fact is that, out of 16 or so waking hours, only a small part is spent thinking about sex, let alone doing it. Likewise, for the typical human, power relationships just aren’t a constant preoccupation. And, while we all fear death at some level, we don’t consume our lives with that preoccupation either. To the contrary, most of us evolve a modus vivendi with mortality – while it lurks in the background, we keep it there, keep it from impinging much on our consciousness, and in substance live our lives as if it weren’t there.
All these “big things” – power, sex, death – may shape the background of our lives, but not the foreground – wherein we actually live from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. That foreground is shaped instead by a skein of smaller, immediate concerns, over how we are going to negotiate all the little problems, issues, challenges, and opportunities that constitute the stuff of everyday life. It’s all about how we are going to get through the day, from Point A to Point B, avoiding pain and trouble, and obtaining what pleasure and happiness we can.
The big things, big events, big milestones of life have their impact. But, in the larger picture, that impact is enormously diluted because it is embedded within the vast flood of smaller things that occupy our attention from one moment to the next. At the moment when you are eating a cookie, or listening to a song, or writing an e-mail, or mowing the lawn, or driving to work, that particular thing is what life is about at that particular moment, because that is what occupies your mind. Not death, not power, not sex, but rather the cookie, the song, the e-mail, the lawn, the road. And life is very largely the sum total of all those moments; it is overwhelmingly through those little moments, one after another after another, that our lives are lived.
As Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search For Meaning: “what matters is not the meaning of life in general, but the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.”
That is what life is really about. And its quality for us is, primarily, a function of how well, in all those small moments, we are able to extract pleasure and happiness. When you bite into that cookie, and experience a moment of pleasure from it, that truly is what life is about.