What do you live for? What would you die for? What would you kill for?
Pretty interesting questions, you have to admit.
I heard them several days ago on an NPR broadcast of a 2008 documentary by Karen Michel called Live? Die? Kill? It was part of the Third Coast International Audio Festival. She asked those questions of a number of people within 30 miles of her home in Pleasant Valley, NY.
Michel’s interviews were face to face, all apparently very brief. I was intrigued. And so I tried my hand at an internet version of the same thing, emailing the questions to 80 people, requesting short answers, and guaranteeing the anonymity of their responses.
Who are these people? A very well-educated crowd with lots of graduate degrees, almost all urban-dwellers, few people of color, few who are gay; largely Jewish, Christian, and atheist/agnostic, with virtually no fundamentalists.
None of my patients, in case you were wondering.
Politics? Most are left of center. Also, the vast majority are over 50, although I did endeavor to include some in their 20s and 30s. Still, this sample is in no way intended to represent any larger group. They exemplify the population of people who I knew well enough to think that they might give me answers. Take it for what it is.
Nearly all of the three dozen respondents took the task seriously. But two people did make a joke out of the last question. For example, one said he would kill for “being able to drive a golf ball 300 yards.”
At least, I’m hoping it was a joke.
Not everyone was certain of his or her answer, or even of the question:
Questions two and three are easy to answer: I would die for or kill for my children. Question one is more difficult because I’m not sure exactly what you are asking? Is it a question about the future and goals, the overall purpose of my life? I’m not a very future oriented (or past oriented) person. I live pretty much in the now (though a list of what I’m supposed to do is useful for achieving a good night’s sleep).
I don’t think I have any particular mission in life. I live trying to do what needs to be done, to enjoy the world and to care for my loved ones.
Her husband also wasn’t sure about what precisely he lives for: “I don’t live for anything, I think. I live day-to-day, and try to do the things that are right and that make me and others happy.”
They sound well matched, don’t they? For them, questions of purpose don’t seem troublesome. But not everyone felt this way:
I wish I could say there is someone or something I would live or die for. This probably comes from being childless. When I was young, I would have answered this question with the name of my first husband… until he cheated and broke my heart.
Since I am a firm believer in not killing, including animals and even insects (except mosquitos trying to bite me), there is nothing I would kill for. The only time I could ever envision killing would be to kill myself. After a life of suffering from depression, there have been times when I concluded that suicide must always be an option for me.
The hardest question is “what do I live for?” I live because I am alive. I don’t live for anyone or anything. Again, I think not having children influences my answer to this question.
A quite different response came from a woman whose return email to me embraced the task with particular enthusiasm; and whose answers confirmed a view of living that glories in ideas of freedom and spontaneity.
This sounds like fun! My pleasure:
1. I live for glee and pursue it shamelessly. Where do I find it? In the most unexpected places. How do I encounter it? Through my addiction to surprises and change, adventure, and risk.
2. I would die for love, I really would. What do I love? Innocence. I would immolate myself if I thought I could save purity, innocence and hope (faith).
3. I would kill out of despair, only for rage. What do I rage against? Naivety, blind stupidity that refuses pain or rejects unwelcome aspects of truth. If I saw such horror before me, I might kill myself out of despair at beholding my own projection.
One of the most interesting answers to the question “What do you live for?” was more like an item from a wish-list than practical guidance for day-to-day existence:
…Another part of me lives for the future — by hoping to recreate the past. The happiest days of my life were the summers of my youth, when aside from an hour of daily piano practice, I was free to ride my bike, play baseball, and do anything I pleased. Ever since, I’ve dreamed of having a “30 year summer.” The clock is ticking, but the math still works.
Frequent responses to the first two items mentioned the desire to learn, find “meaning,” leave a legacy, make a difference, the need to create, and the importance of religious/spiritual beliefs. I also received a number of comments indicating a willingness to die for one’s country or to combat evil or to preserve liberty; similarly, people who said they would kill in order to defend family, country, or themselves.
But quite a few respondents realized that saying that they hoped to do so did not mean that they actually would. And many thought that they would not want to kill under any circumstances.
Only one person seemed utterly certain about the capacity to kill and the reason to do it — because he had already done it: “I kill for food.”
For another, living is largely focused on self-satisfaction: “I live for the things that make me happy in life. Those things can be as simple as a sunset, watching a fire in my fireplace on a snowy night, the beach and the ocean, family, and friends to knowing that I have made a positive difference in someone’s life.”
Here is a thoughtful response to all three questions that is shaped, in part, by a particular set of life circumstances:
1. I live for my loved ones and especially my children – to spend time with them, learn from them, enjoy the growth and blossoming of younger ones and the wisdom of older ones. I also live for doing things that interest me, and for doing things to help others. And I live to learn, and to grow. Also, to read books and squeeze in a little writing. I live to see beautiful natural places…to try to be a good person and my best self. And I live to help my younger daughter (who is intellectually challenged) become more independent, and to help my older daughter have some adult time when she is not responsible for her sister. (She will be her sister’s guardian once I die.)
2. I have never thought of what I would die for, and have never been in a situation where I really needed to answer this question. So in imagining what I might consider being worth dying for, I hope I would die for justice, and if it were necessary to give my life to “do the right thing” for someone else. I hope I would die to save the life of my children, and to save any children really. I probably would die trying to save the life of any of my friends, my family, my dog – anyone in distress, really. I hope I would die trying to stop someone from doing evil to others.
3. Hmmm….doesn’t say what kind of creature I’d “need” to kill. I imagine if it were necessary for me to kill an animal to survive, I might be able to do that. Might not. I hope I would kill a person who was in the process of wreaking physical destruction on others, though I’m not sure how I might do that. I have a hard time imagining any other situation when I would kill.
It is interesting that virtually no one in this group of very accomplished (but mostly anonymous) people mentioned material things, money, status, or power. Only one person stated that she lived for “success” and no one wrote the word “career” except to disqualify it.
Two respondents identified “family” as the answer to each query. I asked one, a professional performer, for a further explanation:
1. What do you live for?
I could say music, but then I would be lying. Making music is one of the highlights of my life. I feel privileged that am able to do something I love tremendously. I am passionate about performing — very much so. But I do not live for it. I live for my family. They are the ones that matter more than anything in my life. I live for the children I do not yet have. I am extremely fulfilled and cared for by a loving husband. And I love and enjoy my close relationships with my immediate family. I live for them.
2. What would you die for?
Any number of scenarios, but they boil down to: if it would save someone I loved, then I would die trying to save them.
3. What would you kill for?
A perfect body? Oodles of money? A longer life? A genie? Never aging? Maybe, but probably not. Only if I was protecting my family can I ever imagine doing such a thing.
For the musician’s husband, it was equally simple — the last word on the subject:
Immediately I thought “love” would answer all three questions.
If you’d like to hear the radio program that prompted this essay, go to: Live? Die? Kill?
Thanks to all of you who responded to my request for answers and to any others who might wish to add their own answers to these three questions in the Comments section below.
The top image is The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve by William Blake, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The bottom painting is The Kiss by Gustav Klimt from 1907/8, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.