Nothing Matters But What If It Did
The battle for everything.
Leave it to humans to contrive and ascribe something so arrogant as “purpose” to anything we do. There are entire cottage industries devoted to helping “everyday people” or “high achievers” discover their “life’s purpose.” Generally, it’s a weekend-long seminar that costs more than an “everyday person” can afford, where you can sit with other “go-getters” in a large event center where hundreds of other hopelessly unfulfilled humans with means can listen to a “guru” speak sub-Burning Man platitudes into one of those Backstreet Boys-style headset microphones, while a dressed-up slideshow plays behind them.
We’ve been searching for thousands of years for meaning: what does life mean? How did we get here? Where are we going? What is our role in this whole mess? Religions. Countries. Cultures. Sciences. All constructs created to help us lasso what we hope to be a reason to keep moving forward — as individuals, and as a species. Some of these are more laughable than others. Most things are laughable. Or, would be, if we weren’t so goddamned busy trying to off each other in service of sub-truths, half-truths and outright lies.
On a biological level, the only true human needs are to eat, sleep and hydrate. Your “purpose” — if you want to call it that — is to do those three things repeatedly to stay alive. But that wouldn’t make for an interesting life, nor would it make for a compelling column. There isn’t a Brinks Truck worth of reading material on how to keep eating, drinking and sleeping. (Wait, yes there is, which is another indictment of our profoundly odd existence. We’re literally instructing people how to best do the very things that have kept us alive since the age of Babylon.)
Life, no matter how you wish to assess it, is fundamentally and objectively meaningless. The only endemic human function is to, merely, stay alive and potentially procreate —that is, if your genes and gifts are worth passing on to the next generation and, perhaps, in perpetuity. And yet, your life matters.
In a truly widescreen sense, we are all proliferations of the three-dimensional fractal function (possibly four dimensions, but we’ll address that later) we call the cosmos. We sit perpetually someplace in the vast omnipresence of space-time, small specs of dust in a vast emptiness. Happy mathematical accidents.
Hey! We’re here! Of all the gin joints in the Universe, we ended up blissfully breathing, and sharing this rock together! We should all be laughing, maximizing joy, at the sheer silliness of humanity even existing at all, or that our lives just so happen to be happening. We mostly don’t.
Humanity appears to be hitting an upper-limit, a breaking point, and we’re at the risk of fraying into unregulated entropy and frittering away the vast, impossible gift of shared mutual existence. You needn’t read too far beyond the day’s headlines before throwing up your hands in equal parts disgust and bewilderment. Many among us — both the impossibly powerful and individually powerless — would rather publicly saw off the legs of civil society to prove they could thrive without them. (They can’t.)
The horror you’re, we’re, experiencing at this juncture is real and warranted. Each day a new -ism creeps up, or a new body lies cold in the street, or a new law is passed that rolls back rights, we’re reminded of just how fragile life is, how dangerous and pathological the extreme of thinking that any of this matters (or, potentially, that nothing matters except for what they hope to achieve) can be, and just how solipsistic some can be when confronted with the reality that what they’re trying to achieve is just “not all that special.” Try telling the Brexiteers that the English aren’t exceptional. Brexit is the definition of exceptionalism. And there is no exceptionalism without first falsely believing that you matter. Exceptionalism means thinking you matter more than others, without thinking that you’re the exception.
On a cosmic level, if some omnipotent deity were to exist, she’d likely laugh at the violent nature of humans whom she’d equipped with the unique gift of civility. The irony of the first species on Earth to know better ultimately leading us all down the expressway to lifelessness. Climate change. Neofeudalism. Fascism. Authoritarian dystopia. Perhaps this is our greatest proof of all that no god exists, or perhaps if she were to, she had a pitch-dark sense of humor. (She may.)
I’ve thought about meaningless a lot lately, as I’ve edged into the upper region of my 30s. I’ve largely resigned myself to my own futility. I will live and die. Barring some unforeseen development, I’ll be forgotten quickly.
My goals, to the extent that I had them to begin with, don’t excite me much anymore. I’m not motivated by money, or a bigger house. I don’t anticipate finding lasting love or making a family. I don’t see any mind-blowing accomplishments waiting on the horizon. I’m not sure I’ll discover myself to be of use to anyone beyond what I already do for people. (Chief among them: write lengthy existentialist diatribes that may or may not make people re-evaluate their own existence.)
I did what I set out to do. I wrote things. People read them. I ran a marathon. I traveled. I made some money. I sang songs. I ate good food and listened to great music. I stayed out way too late. Had my heart stolen and broken and felt alive the whole time. Even became a cat person.
I don’t think I’m going to solve this puzzle by working harder or being more productive, when I’m already always “on.” And, as mentioned above, everything nationally and globally is turning into a grease-fire, and within a half-decade or less we’ll be violently engulfed in a wave of super-fascism, and while we all kill each other over food and medicine, the elite will laugh from their fortified compounds as they aim at colonizing Mars. Climate change will surely kill what evil can’t. Ask me again what there is to look forward to or aspire to?
I have a brother and sister, yet I don’t anticipate being an uncle. My parents will definitely die — in all likelihood before I do. Then I’ll get old and weird and lonely, and my body and mind will break down. Society will fray and burn. I doubt any Buffalo sports team will win a title. Then, death.
Maybe I’m wrong. Someone once said “this world just wasn’t made for those cursed with self-awareness.” I think they were right. I wish I didn’t question so many things. Maybe then I’d be lighter, freer. A fisherman or a carpenter or something. In Portugal. Simple. At peace.
Life is objectively meaningless. There’s nothing out there. No “calling.” No god. No higher power. We are not living in a simulation, and none of this is preordained. It’s just space-time, energy, and the empty abyss of the cosmos. Here we are, stranded on a rock in the middle of nowhere, paying the electric bill if we can afford to. And yet, that is every reason why it’s important to fight for things that do matter. Ideas matter — equality, justice, wisdom, peace, happiness, freedom, dignity.
They matter because humanity has shown, time and again, that these are ideals worth striving for and, even better, momentarily achievable. The entire world isn’t starving, burning, or drowning all the time, everywhere. These ideas are worthwhile because, although they’re human constructs, they’re guide-stars that propel us all toward a world that’s less meaningless. They’re places to find purpose. It’s about the work. It’s about the contribution. It is, ultimately, about the preservation of the species, and about adding value, in ways that do the most good with the least harm.
Perhaps, when searching for meaning, we are asking ourselves the wrong question. Instead of “what’s the meaning of this,” we should ask “what’s the value of this?” That’s calculable: good-minus-harm. It may not quench our desire for a divine creator or a lifelong pursuit, but it’s a start.
It’s rumored an astronaut once looked out the window of his spacecraft, peered down towards Earth, and said, “every war and injustice, every law passed and fortune made, the whole of human history and progress, all right there, and if I cover it up with my hands, it’s all gone. Really puts things into perspective.” Maybe we were meant to die. Maybe life is merely an interlude within the larger narrative of universal order. Maybe humanity is a bug the cosmos will fix in the next round of beta-testing. Maybe all this means nothing.
If so, perhaps it would help to live a life of dignity, empathy, humility, curiosity and integrity. We could laugh more, learn more, feel more, aid more. Do more good than harm.
We are stewards of this spaceship. We should take care of it. And each other. And maybe enjoy the ride a little more. It could end at any time, and when it does, none of this will matter.