YOLO. You only live once. It is a popular phrase in North American society among the 20 somethings. Often yelled out before undertaking audacious actions which express the spirit of youth – after all, this phrase is said to remind you that you only live once and therefore must live to a fullness without regrets – this phrase represents a mentality for the generation. What better can represent this generation who is on the lookout for happiness? A generation who actively seek out new experiences for the semblance of fulfillment? YOLO has caught on for a reason; it touches and impresses deep into the heart. YOLO is not just a catchphrase. It is the affirmation of a lifestyle.
After being caught up in YOLO North America, I was given the chance to move away and examine YOLO while undertaking a YOLO trip in Asia for a year. In the process of a gradual de-YOLOization, I started having thoughts about YOLO and the happiness it represents.
When I was in the “Spring City” of Kunming in the Yunnan province of China, there was a clear blue sky and sunlight and some friends to get drunk with in the hostel, so I stayed for a week to restore my energies after a 20 hour train ride to the city. I studied Chinese during the day and drank beer and baijiu (Chinese white wine) at night, and in the midst of this routine I came across Twilight of the Idols and the Anti-Christ by Nietzsche in the hostel library. One sentence I distinctly remember remarking upon was this one, “… for him (Nietzsche) the only happiness worth having is that which is the by product of strenuous efforts in various directions, effort without a thought for the happiness they might produce.” Upon reading a brief history of his life, in which the latter part was marked by illness, solitude and a lack of success or recognition, it seemed that this phrase described his own life pretty well.
A month passed in the sunny Yunnan province, and I went through various conditions, from the warm tropical town of XiShuangbanna in the Southwest to the cragged snowy Tibetan mountain town of Shangrila up 3200m in altitude in the North. It was time to move on to the next province, to Sichuan where I made my homebase the provincial capital of Chengdu, a city that was humid and cloudy in contrast to the sun. From this ancient city famous for its spicy cuisine and “spicy” girls, I made a trip to the neighbouring city of Leshan, which held the monumental Leshan Stone Buddha.
It was still the period of the Chinese Lunar New Year, and the whole of China was on holiday. Many Chinese people had the same idea as me and there was a three hour line up to see the Buddha. Slowly the line crawled, from behind and around the massive head of the Buddha, snaking down to the feet, as the immensity of the Buddha revealed itself. In the line I felt increasing reverence to this figure, which was 70 metres tall and made the worshippers below seem like clothed ants.
Once at the bottom I looked up, craning my neck to see the whole figure. Carved into the mountain facing a flowing river rushing past, the Buddha seemed as though it was a hidden extension of the mountain that found expression. I leaned back on the railing which blocked the river, and stared up for a long time at its head, which seemed to be a part of the ceiling of the darkening sky. The eyes were in a placid meditative state, staring across the rapid river and far beyond the city and through it, resting its gaze past the world of smaller sentient beings to a world of mortal incomprehensibility with fullness and compassion behind a knowing smile. Sitting straight on its humble mountain throne, as it had done for centuries, weather worm but without a hint of cumbrance, there was a feeling of naturality in its deportment, as if it was comfortably waiting for the right moment to awake from its age long meditation. I felt humbled and although I am not Buddhist I felt compelled to bow down to this great figure before me to express my veneration.
I then imagined the building of the Buddha from the point of view of its constructors. It took almost a century in its making and its makers toiled assiduously, removing morsels of stone at a time, meticulously chiselling through rock over decades and generations of man. The end result: what was once a wall of stone, now a towering Buddha. What an inexpressible feeling of delight one must have felt at its completion! To look up, exactly as I had, toward the Buddha, up to the head that seems to be a part of the ceiling of the sky, looking to the same tranquil, meditative eyes that I had stared at. Examining every detail of the limbs and body and understanding, with the process of work deeply impressed into the body, what exactly every inch of the Buddha meant. What a feeling it must have been to have one’s existence tied with this creation, which will be admired for centuries to come. All out of a lowly and insignificant being with human flaws and a weakly mortal body did such a manifestation of grandeur appear.
The YOLO mindset could not have built such a marvel. Focused on fleeting instants of “happiness” and momentary gratification, there is no ensuing fulfillment in the YOLO mindset. All that results is a hollowness and growing anxiety, mounting as the years mount on the physical body. Perhaps inside all of us there is a Great Buddha that lies in wait, waiting to be revealed. Unworked on and only with brief flashes of its true figure, we may pass over it while living for the moment, scrambling after quick “hits” of “happiness.” But what if we started this slow arduous process of sculpting? Working with patience towards an End, with care and painstaking effort? I think it would be marvellous to look back (and up) at personal creations, and feel warm waves of contentment emanating from deep within. After all, you only live once.