By Zayna Mian

With just 16 years to account for on this earth, I wondered if I was being presumptuous in attempting to tackle the question of what it means to have really lived. So, I turned to the lives of those in my immediate circle, such as family members, to gain insight into the key determinants of a meaningful existence.

As Julius Caesar once remarked, “experience is the teacher of all things.” This made me reflect on whether accumulating experiences helps us live life to the fullest. The first person who came to my mind as someone who embodies this example was my 94-year-old grandfather. Whenever I converse with him, I feel that his wide-ranging experiences, spanning nearly a century, have truly strengthened his character. Surviving the Second World War followed by the tumultuous partition of India and Pakistan, the greatest human mass migration in history, living through personal tragedies, including the death of a beloved younger brother, and serving as a village leader and chairman of a leading business have all made the trajectory of his life remarkable. Conversations with him are usually peppered with anecdotes, which reveal the interpersonal skills, understanding of human nature, ability to appreciate different perspectives on life, and capacity to adapt to changing times that he has gained from a multitude of experiences. More importantly, he frequently recounts how each new experience has revealed more truths of life and consistently strengthened his personality. The variety of his experiences have given him exceptional wisdom and tenacity, which explains his overall success in life.

Another aspect of my grandparents’ lives that I came across in my search for the drivers of a worthwhile life was the impact that they had on those around them. Until recently, I never associated the term “really lived” with my grandmother, who at 92 presumably had shared many of my grandfather’s experiences prior to her death two years ago. She embodied warmth and comfort and was content in a life surrounded by her children and grandchildren. Seeing her family well settled and happy was her vision of a purposeful existence. Her values will pass down through generations of our family and to some extent our village community. My grandmother’s impact on the lives around her may not comprise an exhaustive list and often goes uncredited. However, the emotional support and care that she gave to her nine children and husband, although restricted to her immediate family, still had a huge impact on paving the way for a next generation with strong morals and values. This goes to show that fulfilling duty as a parent or spouse with dedication and conscientiousness also represents living life to the fullest. On the other hand, my grandfather’s role as a village leader gave him the opportunity to impact the lives of many beyond his family. He has set up schools and medical facilities, solved domestic disputes and community squabbles, helped people find jobs, arranged marriages for orphans, advised people on local business opportunities, and represented the community in dealings with government institutions. To this day, he goes daily to the office of an NGO he has set up to listen to the problems of the underprivileged in our society and makes an effort to help in some capacity or the other. It is this facet of his life, where he touches the lives of hundreds, that convinces me that his journey is one I too should try to emulate. Overall, I feel that my grandparents’ lives demonstrate how harnessing opportunities to make a positive impact, however big or small, are a prime example of living life to its fullest.

Learning from experiences is another dimension that helps us add meaning to our lives. As I shifted my focus from my grandparents’ generation to that of my parents, I realized that the knowledge we gain from experiences or otherwise also contributes to charting life’s course. My father earnestly embodies this view by harnessing every opportunity to learn through reading books, listening to informative podcasts, and engaging people in meaningful discussions on a range of topics. His version of a meaningful existence focuses on the pursuit of knowledge and opportunities to gain new perspectives intertwined with efforts to develop others in the workplace and community. He admires eminent writers such as Dale Carnegie, who has written books on self-improvement and interpersonal skills, as well as Malcolm Gladwell for his unique perspective on coping and succeeding in the modern world. These books pass on useful knowledge to countless readers to assist them in managing and adapting to hurdles in life. Another example is that of my mother, who went back to university for another postgraduate degree in environmental management when I was around seven years old. As a child, I wondered why she took on an additional burden when she already had a seemingly settled life. I can now relate it to her desire to live life fully by availing herself of opportunities to improve her knowledge and skill base and contribute to the development of society.

As I looked beyond my immediate circle toward the lives of remarkably selfless figures in philanthropy, such as Abdul Sattar Edhi, or scientists like Alexander Fleming, I realized that the key determinants for an impactful life were the same as the ones I had identified in my family members. Edhi selflessly made it the purpose of his life to uplift those in need. Alongside running the Edhi Foundation, he personally continued to bathe corpses left unclaimed in city slums and took care of unwanted babies left at his doorstep until his death in 2016. Even now, his donated eyes are continuing his legacy of unmatched magnanimity. The fact that Edhi’s efforts touched so many other lives highlights the value of his own life — a life really lived. Another example is that of Alexander Fleming, whose search for knowledge led to the discovery of penicillin, a lifesaving drug that helped transform the lives of many others.

On a personal and much smaller scale, working with Akhuwat, an interest-free microfinance organization in Pakistan, gave me a glimpse into possibilities for having a positive impact on the lives of less privileged members of society by helping fund their self-livelihood initiatives. Even a small peek into this world gave me a sense of fulfillment and motivation to take up other projects through which I can be of benefit to others and add purpose to my own path. My journey with Akhuwat taught me that experiences also help give you a sense of direction in life. At the same time, I also feel that not all experiences are equal; some have a more lasting impact and opportunity for learning and contribute more significantly toward living fully. In my case, this experience turned out to be a health issue related to my eyes that required extensive consultations with doctors, several medical investigations, and medication, which in the span of just six months left me feeling as if I had aged several years. It’s probably because facing hardships increased my appreciation for the simple joys of life and shifted my focus more towards enjoying things in the moment, like sitting in a garden and observing the melodic humming of birds or reading a book aloud for my grandfather. I also came to appreciate my mother’s favorite quote, “the only constant in life is change,” by Heraclitus, as my health experiences forced me to be more realistic as opposed to idealistic and to find ways to cope and adapt to my changed circumstances. Through this painful period, I realized that experiences at any age can teach us what life is really about, and each new experience gives us another opportunity to reevaluate our path for the future, provided we are willing to learn. These experiences in turn can motivate us to have a positive impact on the lives of others. The pursuit of knowledge with the intent of helping others can span numerous fields, from economics and law to medicine and psychology. I personally derive inspiration for gaining knowledge to benefit others from scientists like Alexander Fleming. Perhaps one day, as an aspiring biochemist, I too can make a contribution to scientific research so that when I look back at my life, I see a lifetime spent pursuing knowledge to contribute to a bigger cause, and feel that I too have had an impactful existence.

Experiencing life to the fullest can entail many different things depending on what meaning we derive from life itself. Life is a journey that is tumultuous by nature; throughout this journey we are constantly evolving, growing and learning, both mentally and physically. Life brings both its fair share of challenges and rewards and revolves partly around our circumstances, fate, and subsequent actions and reactions. Therefore, purposeful living is not something that can be easily quantified, because all of us have different circumstances, aims, aspirations and expectations in life. Reassessing where we stand in our lives and whether we have added value can help us adjust and define our path in life. At the end of the day, only we can be the true judge of what makes us feel that we have “lived” life based on our purpose and goals. To me, accumulating and learning from meaningful experiences, pursuing knowledge, and touching the lives of others all contribute to making life worthwhile.

Zayna Mian is from Lahore, Pakistan, and was 16 years old when she wrote this article. She is a prolific reader who plans to pursue her interest in writing short stories, blogs, and eventually novels. Zayna loves playing the piano and also enjoys squash. She is passionate about scientific research and hopes to become a biophysicist one day.

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