We trace our ancestors back about 200,000 years. Unlike the vast majority of species that ever existed, we (humans) are still here. This is not as impressive as it might sound at first. Compared with some life forms, particularly dinosaurs that ruled for about 175 million years before their extinction 65 million years ago, being around for 200,000 years is not that impressive. In addition, conditions for most humans, until quite recently, were rather grim. Life expectancy as late as the Middle Ages was 25 at birth–50% of children died before turning five! Furthermore, a relatively good life, at least in terms of creature comforts, safety, clean air and water, opportunities for happiness and love, sanitation, ample food and other quality of life measures were ghastly, relative to contemporary standards in developed nations. Personal extinction was ever present.
It’s not likely people who lived during all but a fraction of human time did not devote a lot of time to pondering the meaning of life.
Speaking of extinction, consider this somewhat disquieting reality — we’re all doomed, as well, not just as individuals but as a species–along with all other life forms — and Earth itself.
How Long Do We Have?
That depends. Countless natural or human-induced calamities could drop the cosmic curtain at any time, perhaps while you’re reading this, such as asteroid strikes, thermonuclear wars, a supernova or volcanic eruptions combined with earthquakes. Less sudden but no less epic terminal misfortunes, such as loss of the biosphere via global warming, widespread pandemics, or other science fiction-like events could do it, such as a blitzkrieg by extraterrestrials with serious attitude problems.
Even if our descendant homo sapiens hang on for a few hundred, or a few thousand or even millions of years (seems improbable), in time Ecclesiastes’ lament will come to pass, that is to say, all will be futile, utterly futile. Humans are doomed. How does that comport with the meaning of life?
What Lies Ahead?
Sadly, the absolute certainty is that our Sun is mortal, just like us. While its lifespan is more impressive than ours, in time it will go the way of all flesh, even though it is decidedly not of flesh. Yes, our Sun is going to die. Presently about four and a half billion years old, it has already burnt through roughly half the hydrogen in its core. Barely enough remains to keep the lights on for about another five billion years, at most.
Once the fuel is gone, the Sun will start to expand, getting hotter and hotter. Earth will become a giant desert, only insects and bacteria will remain. Later the oceans will boil off and everything will catch fire. Eventually, the sun explodes, though no living thing will be around to notice, and Earth and our solar system will be gone with nary a trace.
But, look on the bright side. You will have been dead for a very long time before such things come to pass.
The Truly Amazing, Really Really Good News
Though ultimate meaningless is not yet recognized by billions around the globe, the good news is that eventual recognition of such might bring dramatic advances for humanity, such as the way we treat each other. If nearly everyone comes to realize and adapt to the reality that there is no purpose for our existence, no grand scheme, no divine plan, no overarching design, then compassion, kindness, empathy and other decencies might be more attractive than at present.
Think about it. Your presence as a humanoid is totally meaningless — you have no preordained role. You are inconsequential, like everyone and everything else. You and I and everyone are alone, with no loving or angry deity or savior looking out for or having it in for us, no skygod to reward or punish. No invisible, unknowable superpower doing favors for prayers or inflicting harm if we don’t adhere to what priests and preachers, ayatollahs and rabbis, witch doctors and shamans insist it demands we do, or not do.
Consider the overwhelming likelihood that there is no hell below or heaven above — no afterlife of any kind — period. Your momentary presence on this planet as a somewhat advanced life form is a cosmic accident. It’s highly improbable – and a true wonderment.
This life is it and it never lasts long, so try to experience and share as much joy, art, music, drama, happiness, exuberance, love and so on before you die. The end is near – get on with it.
This Is Good News!
Make no mistake – this truly is good news. It’s an incredibly wonderful and liberating perspective. It’s a sound reason to set a course to live life well and die happy. Celebrate — and shape your own meaningless existence in ways that do mean something, many things that are precious for you and those you love and care about.
In no way does ultimate meaninglessness mean you should or are more likely to ignore the well being of others. On the contrary, a view of life as meaningless, save for what purposes we invent, makes us as likely to care for others as much as we do for ourselves. This sentiment reflects Robert Ingersoll’s thoughts on death, as reflected in these two excerpts:
What would this world be without death? It may be from the
fact that we are all victims, from the fact that we are all
bound by common fate, it may be that friendship and love
are born of that fact. (Lotus Club Address, March 22, 1890, NYC.)
Maybe death gives all there is of worth to life. If those we
press and strain within our arms could never die, perhaps
that love would wither from the Earth. Maybe this common
fate treads out from the paths between our hearts the weeds
of selfishness and hate. And I had rather life and love where
death is king that have another life where love is not.
(Oration At A Child’s Grave, January 8, 1882, Wash., D.C.)
A Caring Philosophy
We know from Viktor Frankl, Irving Yalom and many existential philosophers whose work focused upon finding meaning in this life, that service to others is the surest path to happiness.
Many who could afford to engage in lavish self-indulgence choose instead to devote themselves to causes and service to their fellow men and women, and derive meaning and enduring satisfactions from doing so.
The list of such notables is long – familiar examples include former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Sonny Bono, Angelina Jolie and countless others.
Here’s what Apple CEO Tim Cook told a graduating class at George Washington University:
There are problems that need to be solved, injustices that need to be ended, people that are still being persecuted, diseases still in need of cures. No matter what you do next, the world needs your energy, your passion, your impatience with progress. History rarely yields to one person, but think and never forget what happens when it does. (Tim Cook, Commencement, The George Washington University, May 17, 2015)
That can be you. That should be you — all of us, making a mark, and a
positive difference, however modest, during the brief moments of our time. No, none of it will matter to us when we’re gone, but it does give meaning for a while, while we and those we affect still exist.
Of course, with a REAL wellness philosophy, you’ll want to go one more step — learning about, adopting and maintaining a lifestyle that promotes wellbeing, reason, exuberance and personal freedoms; do that and you will surely make the most of your possibilities.
Despite the absence of wishful thinking about an ultimate, cosmic and pre-ordained purpose which you may have long suspected was make believe, you will have filled your time with consequence, with meaning and purposes of your own design.
May your life be epic and triumphant.