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Living Is More than Surviving

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"I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really — get busy living, or get busy dying."
Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption

There are situations when characters are in a dangerous situation and steps must be taken to survive, whether it is keeping safe from natural dangers, or escaping from the consequences of the follies of their civilization.

However, this can be taken too far when the result is the characters constantly living in fear or complacency without end, such as hiding from the world even when the situation has changed or there are responsibilities to recognize.

This Aesop comes when at least one character begins to realize that all their community's focus on survival is producing a life that means nothing beyond giving into their fears or sloth. Instead, the characters realize that they have to have more in their lives, something to live or work for. This puts them in conflict with the others who refuse to change and demand the dissenters fall back in line and re-enter their shell. This will climax with the heroes saying something like "No, I'm tired of surviving where the only thing waiting for us is death, I want something to live for!"

In the end, the heroes manage to convince the whole community to leave their stifling fear and enter the world with all its risks and work for something constructive and meaningful. As a result, everyone finds that they are happier and up to the challenge.

This stems back to how humans are called "homo sapiens" for good reason: every creature on the world, including humans, have the instinct to survive, but only humans (other sapient species in speculative fiction notwithstanding) can think beyond survival - that is, comfort, wealth, expression, and many more.

In the Pyramid of Needs by Abraham Maslow, this trope is fulfilling everything above level 2.

This, in a way, is the opposite of Ambition Is Evil: that is when trying to improve your lot in life is a bad thing, probably leaving you Lonely at the Top. This trope is when having no ambition beyond not dying early is a bad thing.

See also We Have Become Complacent and Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life. Compare Social Darwinists, who make "survival of the fittest" their credo. Contrast Nothing Left to Do but Die. A Motivational Lie may be used to instill this in someone. As an inversion, Beware the Living or anybody who follows this creed but is Too Dumb to Live.


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    Comic Books 
  • The Wicked + The Divine: Inanna's personal philosophy is a variation on this. As he and the others of the pantheon have only two years at the most to live after their emergence as gods, he's decided that rather than regret the life he won't have or fear dying, he'll take the opportunity to embrace the confidence godhood has granted him and live the remainder of his life to the fullest. He chides Baphomet for trying to kill him to steal his remaining years of life by pointing out that living for a little bit longer won't mean anything if he spends his borrowed time terrified and desperate.

    Film — Animated 
  • The Croods has Eep confront her father Grug and his obsession with merely surviving in fear, "That wasn't living! That was just.... not dying! There's a difference."
  • The Lion King 1 ½: The film's entire first act is Timon leaving the meerkat colony because "All we do is dig so we can hide, and hide so we can dig!"
  • Padak: Padak spends the whole film trying to convince the rest of the fish to try and escape their predictaments, and that the Master Flatfish's advice is not letting them live what could be a free life in the Ocean, only one fish, Spotty, supports this idea. By the end, the Master himself realizes Padak was right, after she dies and motivates him to move on, and successfully escapes.
  • In the beginning of Ratatouille, Remy explains his admiration for humans by saying that they don't simply exist. They create amazing things, like the food Gusteau cooks.
  • WALL•E. Captain McCrea sums up the fight against AUTO, the ship's computer who has been effectively keeping the humans prisoner aboard the Axiom, because an old and obsolete directive bids him to stay in space where survival is easier, with "I don't want to survive, I want to live!" As it turns out, the humans, and even the robots on board, are thoroughly sick of the pampered yet utterly meaningless existence they live.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • One of the selling points of 20 Years After which was directly stated in the trailer "There is a difference, between surviving and living.".
  • Braveheart. When asked why he risks death to fight for Scottish independence, William Wallace answers "Every man dies. Not every man really lives."
  • John Preston of Equilibrium is asked why he is alive; he answers the questioner, a sense-offender named Mary, that he lives to serve Libria. She isn't impressed.
    Mary: It's circular; you exist to continue your existence. What's the point?
  • Interstellar: Humanity, while still alive and with at least some luxuries left (baseball games, for example) is so focused on keeping what little has left in the Crapsack World that Earth has become after years of climate change and war that only the protagonists actually recognize this trope.
  • Jesus of Montreal. When the lead character is confronted by a priest who wants to kill their iconoclastic play to be on the safe side, he responds, "There is more to life than waiting for death!"
  • One of the themes of Love And Monsters. Staying in the underground bunkers is safe(ish), but it's worth taking the risk of trying to live on the surface. "Don't settle. You don't have to. Not even at the end of the world."
  • Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. Papagallo offers this to Max while trying to persuade him to stay and help the settlement. He can take his vehicle and leave but would end up little different from the Marauders besieging them. Or he can stay and join a community and build a future for himself. Tragically Max is so burnt out from losing his family he refuses to take up the offer even after circumstances force him to help out anyway.
  • A recurrent point in Slow West. "There is more to life than survival. Jay Cavendish taught me that. I owe him my life. Ho for the west."
  • One of Solomon Northrup's most memorable lines in the film version of 12 Years a Slave:
    "Days ago I was with my family, in my home. Now you tell me all is lost. "Tell no one who I really am" if I want to survive. I don't want to survive, I want to live."

  • Bob Dylan's song It's All Right, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) has the line "The hollow horn plays wasted words/Proves to warn/That he not busy being born/Is busy dying."
  • Referenced in Girls Aloud's song "Real Life":
    It's better to be living than surviving

  • Discussed in Les Misérables among members of La Résistance.
  • Iphigenia In Splott: Effie talks about how all of the shops and social amenities in her neighbourhood are being closed down and converted into flats, and says "We used to be able to live here, but now they're just stacking us up."

  • Discussed in The Penumbra Podcast:
    Alessandra: Dying's easy; you've only got to do it once. You can never stop surviving. You've got to get up and do it all day, every day. That's what's hard.
    Juno: Hard doesn't mean the same thing as worthwhile.

    Visual Novels 
  • Astra's Garden: Vinegar suffers from Undeath and needs to take medicine to prolong her life, but the side effects of the medicine make her feel extremely sick, leaving her wondering if her life is even worth living anymore if she is just going to be helpless and in pain the whole time. Indeed, this is the exact reason why Astra's brother Cassava eventually stopped taking his medicine back when he was suffering from Undeath.

    Web Animation 

    Western Animation 
  • All Hail King Julien has the previous King's rule defined by forcing everyone to stay absolutely quiet and hidden all the time. Our King Julien XIII objects to this and makes it his goal to change things as soon as he gets his chance at the crown.
    Julien: If there may not be a tomorrow, then we've gotta live extra big today!
  • An episode of Gargoyles examined this trope.
    Coldstone: You said that destroying my brother is the only way to survive. Is that all there is for us, mere survival?
    Demona: Isn't that enough?
    Goliath: No. Gargoyles protect. It is our nature. Our purpose. To lose that is to be corrupt. Empty. Lifeless.
  • In the final part of the "Weirdmageddon" finale of Gravity Falls, Mabel, Dipper, Soos and Wendy discovers that Grunkle Stan and a handful of other characters have survived by hiding in the magically shielded Mystery Shack. Grunkle Stan refuses to mount an offense against Bill Cipher, saying that they have a good deal just eking out a marginal existence in the Shack and can turn to cannibalism once their food supplies run out. Dipper and Mabel manage to talk the others into fighting back.
  • King of the Hill:
    • "Hank's Unmentionable Problem" has Hank develop severe constipation from his meat-heavy diet. Peggy helps him get into a healthier lifestyle in hopes of curing him, but ultimately sees that he has had to give up just about everything he enjoys in the process. She resolves to let Hank go back to enjoying life on his own terms, even if it leaves him with a somewhat shorter lifespan.
      Hank: I'd rather die with a burger in my colon than live and eat "Faux Fu"!

    Real Life 
  • A quote attributed to Jack London illustrates this (only the first line is confirmed as being his):
    I would rather be ashes than dust!
    I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
    I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
    The function of man is to live, not to exist.
    I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.
    I shall use my time.
    • Others include:
      "The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time."
      "I'd rather sing one wild song and burst my heart with it, than live a thousand years watching my digestion and being afraid of the wet."
  • An interesting case comes from an aphorism of Friedrich Nietzsche. "To live is to suffer. To survive is to find some meaning to the suffering." While the sentence flips around the meaning of both words, making it Surviving Is More Than Living, it is very much this same notion expressed : there is more to existence than suffering, and finding something that makes it "worth it" is central to living a fullfilling life, in contrast to simply trying to minimize the pain.
  • Comes up a lot in the discussion of whether or not to continue life-support for someone who is comatose, and whose prognosis is poor. Many people don't wish to "pull the plug on" a loved one, but there's also the consideration that that person might not ever wake up from their coma, or might be brain-dead, or might wake up but be permanently and severely disabled, such that they might not ever be able to enjoy life, take care of themselves, or live a normal life ever again. Not helping matters is the fact that many people don't think about these things until it's too late, and don't prepare for them or discuss it with their loved ones. Which means family relationships may be torn apart (sometimes irrevocably) when members can't agree on "what [their loved one] would want." (Which may or may not be what they would actually have wanted. And even close family members or spouses aren't necessarily better at making these decisions than strangers would be.)
    • It's also one of the major factors in the euthanasia debate; whether or not someone in critical condition—either doomed to die in agony or in an And I Must Scream situation, either way with any hope of a normal life lost—should be allowed a more peaceful, painless death like is done with terminal pets, especially if the patient themselves requests it.
  • This is the whole point of "co-existing with the virus" doctrine when dealing with the COVID-19 Pandemic in mid-2021 and onwards. Given on how the "Zero Covid Policy" would be realistically ineffective at best, or would result in an economic collapse at worst, they decided to shift to a policy of vaccinating people and wearing masks while maintaining semblance to everyday life in order to sustain economic balance and allow people to have some kind of normal existence after prolonged isolation.
  • This is the dilemma many people with depression and other serious mental illnesses face, believing that the best they can hope for is simply struggling for survival without actually enjoying life and staying alive out of obligation. Helping them see beyond that and create a better life for themselves is a major part of recovery.


Video Example(s):


Survival is Insufficient

In "Survival Instinct" from "Star Trek: Voyager," Seven of Nine is faced with a choice - send three individuals back to the Borg or sever the link between them, knowing that each will only have a couple weeks or so to live. She chooses to terminate the link, but the Doctor questions her motivations, asking if this isn't about her guilt for having caused the situation in the first place, and also noting that he has a duty not to harm his patients. She explains that "Survival is insufficient," that she wishes for them to experience individuality as she has, and as she explains, as the Doctor has too. The Doctor is forced to agree that "Survival is insufficient."

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