As we humans often do, we dwell on our purpose here — here, meaning this pale blue dot of ours. When I ponder these things myself, I tend to go down the wiki-hole looking for any sort of answer. An inkling of direction. I suppose it’s a bit egocentric to through humanity’s encyclopedia.
We don’t have a Hitchhiker’s Guide or Encyclopedia Galactica (not yet at least). Nevertheless, the web’s grain has a mystique. An allure — and I, like many of you are drawn to it. Periodically, it connects me with wonderful new things. Friends, cat GIFs, and news. Other times, it brings us terrible things. Fearful, dreadful nightmares, and trolls.
Recently I came across a wonderful word I’ve never read or heard before — Ikigai. The term is of course, Japanese. Many define it as, a purpose in life. To quote Wikipedia’s author(s), it is “a reason for being.” This particular entry was terse and a bit obtuse, so I searched the web deeper for its history and origin.
It turns out, Ikigai is a linguistically ripe Japanese term. The word in-of itself has several meanings. It’s also a compound of two important Japanese words. Iki (生き) and kai (甲斐)— which themselves are culturally rich and diverse in meaning.
Iki, has interesting origins. According to The Structure of Iki the word has origins tied to the Tokugawa (or Edo) Period — which is unsurprising as the Edo Period was known for economic growth, an incredible arts and cultural renaissance. The word iki can literally mean “chic,” or “aesthetics”. The yabo, or city dwellers of Japan were purists and considered farmers or samuri to be devoid of iki — I’m not surprised that Japan wrestled with othering in their historied past. Pretty much every society on the planet has dealt with the problem, some more than others.
Kai on the other hand is a bit more abstract. I’ve read that some consider the word to mean “ocean” or “shell” — or literally an “armored shell”. Some more imaginative compounds elude to a “beautiful structure.”
In my search for more answers, I discovered ikigai has become the subject of a western health trend (rolls eyes). I’m quick to disregard this dumb trend. Even if Okinawans has the most living centenarians. The culture-preying western societies (America included) indulges in re-appropriation pretty much only for the sake of health or dieting tips. It is relentless and in my opinion — stupid. Exploring cultures, is one thing. Stealing, is another.
I bring this up, because I have a interpretation of ikigai I want to share with you.
Growing up myself, my brothers and I were completely enamored by the cosmos. We used to debate celestial objects, origins and talk of life on other planets. We watched Cosmos, we made rockets. We dreamt of space. We were young and full of adventure — just figuring it all out you know? Enter Richard Feynman. In college, I used to listen to his lectures for fun and on those late nights (the You’veTube heydays), pondering my place in the universe — Feynman calmed me down, reminding me I’m not at the center of the universe. This quantum soup we’re all swimming in… we’re just barely holding on here on Earth.
He gave such great lectures, and was just filled with joy to talk about the mysteries of nature. To me, Feynman completely personifies the definition of ikigai so wonderfully. He spoke with such an innate understanding of his purpose here (and the purpose of physics for that matter). Perhaps he was just a grateful dude. But, I know I’m not the only one that feels that way about him.