A month ago, the founder and sensei of the karate school I belong to, Hidy Ochiai, turned 80. As a relatively new student, having started just a year and a half ago, I never saw him as a karate master in his prime (some students have been with him for 40+ years). But during his birthday celebration at his dojo headquarters, I watched videos of the young him slicing an apple in half off his son’s neck while blindfolded, heard about how he’d climb high in different trees to surprise his sons when they got home from school then jump down limb to limb back to the ground, and listened to tales of many other remarkable physical feats.

But what was more valuable was hearing a bit of his wisdom. He is a small, quiet man that forces his listeners to strain to hear his words. And his stories are somewhat broken—whether from his English or his age it’s unclear. But gems of wisdom rippled out as he spoke—like pebbles dropped in a pond. Some were little stones. Relax your shoulders. You can get no power and you hurt your body holding your shoulders up all day (a position that has been normalized by our computer-centric culture). Look in the eyes of people, connect with them before trying to help them. Obvious statements but essential reminders—particularly today, when our eyes are increasingly focused on our phones’ screens instead of others’ eyes.

But then he dropped a big rock, the ripples of which reached all the way to me standing a bit removed on the shore. He said, “This life is not yours.” Truthfully, I do not remember the context of this statement. But as I try to make sense of being a Gaian, these words are of paramount importance.

Your life is not your own. We are entrusted to these lives. For what? Certainly not to achieve the consumer dream—a big house, meat- and junk-food centric diets, high carbon holidays, etc. Do these things really bring joy? Temporarily, perhaps, though they also come with many health and financial costs. And they certainly do not provide meaning. No one will remember you for the stuff you had in your life, though you might be forgotten because of it: if you spent all your life earning money to afford the consumer luxuries, or playing with those luxuries, instead of spending time with your family, instead of participating in your community, instead of working to heal the Earth, then you wasted your life. (Even if the majority of media, marketing, and cultural messages tell you otherwise.)

One of many Internet memes telling you it’s your life, do with it what you please.

It’s not your life to waste.

You—with your consciousness that the world is burning and racing toward irreversible tipping point after tipping point—have the opportunity, no, the responsibility to take action. In some way or another. Whether that be engaging with global environmental campaigns or neighborhood efforts, or anything—or everything—in between.

Of course this is not a new sentiment. For example, you can find this in Hinduism in the concept of dharma or duty. The famous dialogue between Arjuna, a warrior, and Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, reminds Hindu readers that they must follow their dharma even if they don’t like or understand it. Now I might argue with that example, as Arjuna then goes off and fights a bloody war, and without context of whether the war is just or not, perhaps he was right to question his dharma. (According to Wikipedia, the war was one of dynastic succession between two groups of cousins, so Arjuna may have had a point in balking at his role in this.)

But in the context of life on a sickened planet, we have certain, undeniable, incontestable duties. This life is not yours to do with what you please. Rather:

  • You are here to care for any children you birthed or help raise (and prepare them for the difficult times ahead).
  • You are here to care for the parents who raised you (especially if thing unravel in their lifetimes).
  • You are here to care for, wake up, and prepare others in your community (for most remain asleep).
  • And above all, you are here to heal the planetary being that has nurtured you every moment of your existence and has made and continues to make your life and all life possible.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your life (in reasonable ways). Or practice self-care—no one should encourage activism or activity that burns out the actor—but at the end of the day, if you are not helping others or Gaia in any measurable way, you should reassess your life. Not so you feel bad and not make any substantive changes, but so you take action and return Gaia’s favor and ensure that your children and grandchildren also gain Gaia’s favor and receive the opportunity to return it and pass it on to future generations.

That is how I interpreted the simple statement that ‘This life is not yours.’ And I hope you will too.