When terrorists attack or natural disasters occur, we are reminded of the brutal finality of death: that one day we will fall and there will be no one there to catch us. As I see it, we will have lived but one life and we shall exist just as we did before our short time on this earth: nonexistent and insignificant. This amazes me, confounds me and troubles me.
In an earlier blog post, “The Existential Questions”, I discussed that given our consciousness, and our desire for significance, societies have created stories that glorify our existence (and imbue our lives with significance). Many have now discarded them, myself included, but I hoped we could substitute them with our own. However from an atheistic perspective I find it hard to overcome our utter insignificance.
Our stories can create a meaningful purpose and fulfillment while we live our life but when we slip through the fingers of life, we disappear into the ether. Of course, we still try, in vain, to create significance. We create permanent ownership in the hope that an indefinite object can somehow carry us with it; we erect stone and carve our names into them; we create the conditional tense and most of all, we have kids that bear our names (although, as always, only the male ones because women don’t care to be remembered, do they?).
Unfortunately these objects shed us as quickly as we shed them at death; the stones wash away neglected; the counterfactuals we speak of never happened anyway and thus never existed (i.e. rather than ‘we would have’ just, ‘we didn’t’). And whilst our kids hopefully never forget us, the ones two generations later will, just as we have forgotten our predecessors.
Even the intangible we try to own: we pack time into distinct units to count them as ‘our years’. We strap its relentless tick to our wrists to live but one life and inhabit only one body whilst ignoring our many lives and bodies along the way. We couple this with a semblance of rarity, “2019”, rather than live in the year 302, 019 since humans arose, 13, 800, 002, 019 since the Big Bang or simply infinite. We define ourselves by one identity; one race, one set of parents, one partner, one name, one childhood, one past and one future. As we seek to own time, time traps us.
But some factors are trickier to disregard as social constructs. We are born at some point and at that point, our relation to everyone else becomes fixed. We will only ever know our parents as parents; we will always be younger than our older sibling (although my sister would specify this does not apply to maturity!) and never meet the people who lived before us or after. When people die they are never seen again. We exist at only one era and moment in history (and a pretty good one as Steven Pinker argues although ‘we’ may come to realise otherwise in a few millennia).
Such insignificance troubles me and there are few who escape it. Those we can name, Churchill, Hitler, Martin Luther King, Napoleon, Lincoln, Gandhi, Mandela, and those whose impact on the world is so great that even when they are forgotten, their legacy lives on. For most of us, however, insignificance awaits as even those for whom we have significance will soon be forgotten as well.
And yet, I cannot help but feel we are all the more insignificant because of our obsession around the human time we have. For isn’t death but the end of ‘our time’? Time is not lined up on a conveyor belt in a linear fashion, it rolls backwards just as easily as it flies forward. Time of distant events is often more recent than yesterday and for those with trauma, time circles back to its marker. The man on the moon runs to a different clock and the sun cares not for our measurements.
Our best hope is to let go of our ego and its addiction to time. Old stories of animism and many religions moved beyond time by providing a connection to a timeless element – a spirit and god everlasting. Transcendence is possible within a secular framework. In Indigenous Australian culture, death is not the end of one’s time but the return of energy to the place it most identifies.
“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”In the lovely prose of The Prophet by Kahlil Gabran
To return to the question, do we have significance? The answer is clearly ‘no’. We do not ‘have’ anything. As death surrounds us, just as life, we are reminded of its finality. For now, this reality continues to amaze me, confound me and trouble me.
And whilst it bothers me, and maybe you as well, I enjoy contemplating this poem, The Summer Day, from the recently deceased Nobel Laureate, Mary Oliver.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down —
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?