In 3 Words: Life

Ever a lover of thought experiments, my college boyfriend once asked me what, in three words, was my life philosophy. I no longer remember my exact answer, but I’m almost positive it was “Be here now,” a collegiate attempt to live in the moment while simultaneously paying homage to the 1997 Oasis album of the same name. As for his philosophy, so clearly do I remember what he said, I remember how he said it. Lifting his piercing eyes (cf. his mother) to mine, he pronounced with due gravity, “Don’t ever stop.”

Don’t ever stop. I considered the phrase. It didn’t sit with the fledgling editor in me. It was inefficient. I hazarded a correction. “Don’t you mean ‘Never stop’? You’ve still got one word!” If you’ve only got three words to encapsulate all of life, I figured, hell, each had better count. That stumped him. Because his phrase needn’t have stopped at “stop.” He might have specified an action never to stop, in the manner of The North Face’s company motto, “Never stop exploring.” Or strutting, yodeling, flambéing, hitchhiking: whatever gets you up and at ‘em in the morning.

But he didn’t specify his perpetual motion. This was no battle cry à la Galaxy Quest to never give up, never surrender; no Churchillian call to persevere through hardship. This was an injunction to take no breaks, to smell no roses. Fuel-injected was his philosophy. Go, go, go. Two tees I saw at concerts in LA this summer wore it better: “Coffee straight up” and “Best never rest.” The latter would have suited him nicely.

So, which came first: the exercise or his philosophy? I never thought to ask, but took the formula as given, and through the years have collected various shifting answers of my own. At last I decided to poll the hive mind and examine the spread, to see how far-flung or not were the priorities of my associates. Three words turn out to be a kind of Goldilocks length for pithy phrases: long enough to be expressive, short enough to pack a punch.

Happily enough, survey says there’s love to go around. I heard the childlike “Love and play,” the gentle “Live with love,” and the passionate “Madly in love.” The unrepressed and self-affirming “Want your desires” comes in decidedly sexiest. And the romantic but not overly storybook “Love as possible,” nicked from a friendly neighborhood poet’s Tinder profile, sagely makes no guarantees, because, let’s face it, “Love and loss,” the quintessence of lyric, will blurb the back of a forthcoming poetry collection sooner than later.

There were the culinary indulgence philosophies, which, depending on the vintage, sugar content, and relative states of your fitness and pocketbook, you should indulge at your own risk. “Eat more pizza/pie/tiramisu!” “Drink more microbrews/lattés/champagne!” Channeling Homer Simpson, a funnyman I know took the indulgence cake with “Donut, donut, nap,” his preferred revision of the ultimate populist philosophy of heart and stomach, “Eat pray love,” which baldly hinges on a prayer.

Humanitarian sentiments were generously represented. I heard the Hippocratic “Do no harm,” which, fun fact, doesn’t actually appear in the oath itself, but in adapted form was Google’s unofficial slogan, “Don’t be evil,” since their founding seventeen years ago until, second fun fact, they updated it for the first time last month to something four words in length, and hence, unmentionable here. While we’re in Silicon Valley, a college friend turned startup tech geek offered the socialist “Maximize collective happiness” (though as a Burner he might equally well have said “Damn the man” or “Leave no trace”). My high-school best friend suggested, “Do good happily,” so you’d better like good if you’re going to do it. And paraphrasing Donne, my go-to early modernist settled on the bivalent “Do critical right,” a call for both urgent good and good criticism. That’s counterpart to the elusive goal of writers everywhere, “Rewrite until right,” an idea I found in A. R. Ammons’ Garbage and cut to size. It’s beautifully apt.

Not every philosophy was so rosy. My favorite cynic decreed a “Scorched earth policy,” inadvertently reminding me of Trinity’s description of the roiling real-world sky in The Matrix. (It’s clear whose side he’s on.) “Fuck up often,” advised the other half of his dynamic duo, in periodic commitment to either delinquency or experiment (preserving, in the case of the latter, the possible silver lining of discovery). “Got to go,” shrugged their friend, intimating tardiness, overscheduling, bad company, acute introversion, immanent death, or any combination thereof. And for pessimists and/or lovers of fantasy epics of high production value, there are always the sobering words of house Stark, “Winter is coming.”

Perhaps because we trust the Bard to speak for all the world’s stage, quotes from Shakespeare were tendered. As an added bonus, the ubiquity of his work provides a convenient shorthand of allusion. “Alas, poor Yorick!,” Hamlet’s theatrical memento mori submitted by a local hipster truck driver, means little taken literally, but is so famous as to be in context even out of it. In this post-binary age, ‘Unsex me here,” spake the prettiest androgyne, desiring not the warlike male heart Lady Macbeth covets, but the general ungendering (though not neutering) of society and culture. I tend to agree.

Having meditated over the prompt of the three-word life philosophy for over a decade now, I’ve accrued no shortage of possible answers. In times of misanthropy or thwarted purpose I remember the Preacher, King David’s son, in Ecclesiastes 1:2, who cries, “All is vanity.” In times of melancholia or disassociation I lament with Rilke in the eighth Duino elegy that “All is distance.” After nine years with fibromyalgia, I might assert that “The body rules.” But those same years have shown me that, even in illness, “The mind rules,” “The spirit persists.” In times of elemental synchrony I hold with Jackson Pollock, working not from or in nature, but embodying it: “I am nature.” I’d paganize Pollock to “I am Gaia,” if only eco-feminism did not rightly take issue with the feminizing, the maternalizing of nature. It’s best left ungendered. Or perhaps, as humanities graduate school inculcates, questions are the most productive answers, such as the one that guides my best friend, another painter: “Who am I?”

Pruning the first-person to seek the meaning of life somewhere between me and humanity, for my ten-year anniversary philosophy I’ve abandoned the legibility of imperatives, complete sentences, and other phrases for a good old-fashioned list: “nature nurture culture.” Just so. Nature might be the essential self or the natural world; nurture, the care you take of that self in and of the world; and culture, the histories, languages, and arts of all societies. I like that the false dichotomies of nature vs. nurture and nature vs. culture are destabilized by a third element. I also like the implied presence of an external observer. In my newest philosophy, the Zen present I so fervently sought in my twenties has become instinctual. I’m now here, watching and waiting, gathering evidence,listening to Oasis only (er, mostly) for old times’ sake. I wonder what I’ll do, where I’ll go next?

The ideal coda to this piece was clearly one that checked in with the originator of the exercise, to inquire how and to what his philosophy had evolved over the intervening decade. But we hadn’t spoken in as long. Did I dare? Would he respond?

To my pleasant surprise, he replied within three hours, meaning his updated philosophy came thus readily to his mind. “Make it matter,” he said. Make your time in the universe matter. Make what you do here substantial, of substance. In less physical terms, “Make a difference.” A decade later, he’s turned blindly kinetic energy into attentive potential—and made all three of his three words, ahem, matter. Never stop mattering. Like our first philosophies, his update remains aware of the clock’s ticking, whereas mine now takes time easy. As leaves grow on the tree.

Upon reflection, it’s amazing that one undergraduate trying to get in the now and another blazing past it should ever have crossed paths at all, however briefly. But I always admired the yin in him, even as he strove for total yang. To me, it was the most beautiful thing about him: that as a martial artist he could be so much in motion one moment, so much at rest the next. He was already in balance and didn’t see it. But I saw it. And now he sees it. You see, I am gathering evidence. Perception is all.

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Genevieve Arlie is a writer, editor, and translator currently based in the Midwest. Look for her work in St. Petersburg Review, The Brooklyn Quarterly, M–Dash, and Ulbandus (forthcoming), and on the blogs of Asymptote and Words Without Borders.
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