If you’re fluent in English and you’re more than ten years old, you’ve probably used the phrase “I live for” in conversation. It expresses either intense liking or high valuation of a thing and is sometimes uttered hyperbolically (“I live for chocolate”) and other times earnestly (“I live for my children”).
A glance at popular music gives us a sense of the idiom’s range. In 1966, the surfer band Sunrays released a song titled “I Live for the Sun.” Here the phrase is employed to communicate a passionate attachment to a certain lifestyle. More recently, Lada Gaga gave us “I Live for Applause,” a darker and more complex usage. One boasts of living for the sun but confesses to living for applause.
What do you live for? Knowing the answer to this question can be quite helpful. A person who recognizes that he lives for the sun can take measures to ensure that his life revolves around it (sorry, couldn’t resist), while a person who realizes that she lives for applause can write a song about living for applause that garners applause, and perhaps also seek therapy.
While you continue to noodle on this question, I’ll give you my answer, which is that I live for the feeling of ascending. By this I mean that nothing gives me greater satisfaction than the feeling that I am on a path of improvement in some dimension of my identity that is important to me. Reading this, you might be thinking, “Hey, I like that feeling too. I’m just like you, Matt!”
No, you’re not. There is a huge difference between liking something and living for it. I like being in nature, but I don’t live for it in the way my backpacker friends do. Similarly, everyone likes the feeling of ascending, but very few make their entire lives revolve around stoking this feeling, as I do.
I should note that I was well into my thirties when I first realized that I live for the feeling of ascending, but it immediately explained everything that came before. When I was still a teenager my brother Josh nicknamed me Project Matt, a half-mocking nod to my already insatiable hunger to better myself in particular ways.
My craving for ascension certainly explains why I fell in love with running. My prior sport, soccer, was more fun, but I preferred running because progress is so easily measured. Of course, the downside of using a sport as a vehicle for ascent is that, sooner or later, aging puts a stop to improvement. Yet I continued to improve as an endurance athlete much later in life than I expected to, largely because the feeling it gave me mattered so much that I was willing to get quite resourceful to keep improving. Along the way, I made the happy discovery that relative improvement (i.e., performance relative to one’s peers) can be almost as satisfying as absolute improvement (i.e., PR’ing). The older I became, the closer I got to being faster than anyone my age, which felt like ascending.
Who knows how long I might have kept going if chronic illness hadn’t forced me into sedentariness at age forty-nine. Thank heavens, then, for writing! Granted, improvement is not as measurable in writing as it is in running, but a writer knows if he is improving. Personally, I find the Five-Year Test to be highly reliable in this regard. Earlier in my career, if I picked up and read something I’d written five years earlier, I found it embarrassing—a sure sign that I had gotten better at my craft. This perception is reinforced by more recent applications of the Five-Year Test. For example, the last time I skimmed through Running the Dream, which was written about five years ago, I thought the writing was pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. I would like to believe that, at fifty-one, my best work still lies ahead of me, and I see solid reasons to maintain this hope.
Of all the things a person might live for, the feeling of ascending is more akin to Lada Gaga’s need for applause than to the Sunrays’ sun worship. By that I mean the underlying psychology is probably not altogether healthy. But when you truly live for something—healthy or not—and always have, it’s part of who you are, and not a part that can be removed without consequence, like an appendix. You have to work with what God gave you, while also working to heal the damaged part of you that compels you to live for something that does not exactly qualify as a high virtue.
The fact that Lady Gaga wrote a confessional song about living for applause indicates to me that she is trying hard not to allow this need to completely rule her life—trying to be a better person than she would be if she went all-in for applause. As for me, I find myself pivoting lately in a new direction, a direction that I’m tempted to label growth, as distinct from ascent. I wish I could say that I’m effecting this pivot by choice, but the truth of the matter is that illness and aging have beaten the selfishness out of me (some of it, anyway), leaving a void that has been filled by a latent desire to serve others, helping them along their own ascensions.
The other day I received a thank-you card from one of the people I have served in this new incarnation. Reading it, I was overwhelmed by an emotion that, God help me, felt about as good as the feeling of ascending. May I live long enough to see where this path takes me.