Republishing this post that I wrote three years ago because it feels more important now than it did then.
A friend of mine recently misquoted me in conversation and I looked like a monster.
— Remember that time that Marc told us we were all worthless? she said.
— Hmm. You kind of need to get the whole context, I said, so that I won’t sound like a terrible person. That’s not quite what I said.
I will explain to you the context of this.
I believe that there is an eternity. I won’t go into the details but I believe that time has no beginning and no end. There is a vast, incomprehensible expanse of existence which we created a scale for. We created a scale because we are humans and we called it time and we endlessly bemoan its passing.
When I panic or worry that I am doing something that will have a negative effect on my own life, and I often do worry about this, I reassure myself with the complete inconsequence of my actions.
If there is no beginning and there is no end, I say to myself, then the 80 or 100 years that I live on this earth are less than a blip on the grand radar of eternity.
As Milan Kundera says in his sublime The Unbearable Lightness of Being:
“Life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world…”
I fall backwards into the soothing fact of my insignficance.
And at the same time, the fact is that the eighty or hundred years that I live seems incomprehensibly long. I am now 27. If I live to a hundred, I have now lived over a quarter of my life. I will not live to a hundred.
My life is at once impossibly brief and impossibly long. And whichever way I look at it — depending on my mood probably — I feel wonderfully hopeful because I know that there are billions of people just like me and there have been billions who have lived happily with just this realisation.
Last night I was watching a video with some friends at my house. And the video asked the question: who flourishes because you exist?
And that really made me think. A lot.
The prevalent goal for mankind is: you flourish first, others flourish second.
This is why we think nothing of the millions who will be affected by a cut in benefits but make so much of a politician who inspires a threat to a comfortable, low tax lifestyle that may benefit us more.
It is the reason that we close our borders to refugees and those who need shelter.
Our existence, mostly, causes us to flourish.
Isn’t that a hopeless statement? That if everything works out well, and all our schemes, policies and actions prevail, we will be the ones to benefit — regardless of the cost?
And whatever, I’m not here to preach. And maybe the person that I have described is not you. Probably not. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you think about the world.
But I know myself and I thinkof all the times when I panicked more for my own comfort than the comfort of others. I think of the overwhelming self-interest that dominates my daily life.
And then I think about the hope of existence. The apparent brutality of an existence that matters so little in the grand scheme of things.
If I continue to be self-interested, I will one day disappear and that temporal bandit will continue to rule without mentioning me.
I think that the only hope for a meaningful existence that we can agree on is to sacrifice your self interest to the flourishing of others.
To spend life doing anything other than this seems complete vanity to me now.
And the key thing, I think, to make sense of all this mess is to avoid looking at the big picture too much. If we do that, we’ll become paralysed by our own insignificance, and forget that a large picture is nothing but a thousand million tiny brush strokes.
Every action matters. Every single word. Every thought that you have is a chance to help someone flourish or flounder.
But what do I know? I’m just a middle class white kid with a monthly mortgage payment and a study full of books.
Photo by @g on Unsplash