At a recent gathering of the philosophically minded, a friend lamented that she has been troubled by the sense that our lives don’t matter. Some of us around the table suggested that the way we live affects the people we love, which surely matters. “But eventually,” she countered, “the impact of even the best of us dissipates to nothing.”
Our wish to matter for the long term is very strong. Our ancestors who were apathetic on that point … well, they’re not our ancestors because they lost the competition to reproduce.
We also want to be connected to something more consequential than our individual lives: a tribe, a religion, or a Great Cause. This, too, has been bred into us as members of a species whose ecological niche is “animal that is individually weak but is an apex predator by dint of cooperation and intelligence.”
So what happens when that animal becomes so intelligent that it is able to see through the whole game — when it realizes that no tribe is better than another, that its religions are man-made, and its Great Causes will become utterly moot long before a dying Sun vaporizes the planet?
Let’s take a step back and look at the life of that animal.
As far as an infant is concerned, the universe exists to feed and comfort him. As soon as he is hungry, he will wail as if the world has come to an end. Eventually, he matures enough to realize that Mommy and Daddy have lives and needs of their own and his wants are not the only things that matter.
When he becomes a teenager, new personal crises arise which he feels are unique to him and which nobody understands. The pain is so deep that 1 in 6 consider suicide and 1 in 12 attempt it, most often because they see no end to rejection, anger, guilt or sadness. Fortunately, most are able to stick it out and struggle into adulthood.
If their experience is like mine, they get married and learn at a new level how self-centered they have always been. And then they have kids and really learn it!
At each stage of life, we understand more deeply the meaning of the saying, “It’s not all about you.” This is always a good thing. We are able to relax a little as we put our own struggles and disappointments in proper perspective. As we “get over ourselves” we become better company. Interestingly, our sense of self (not our selfishness but our security) becomes stronger because it stands astride a broader reality.
When someone realizes that no matter what she does, her life will not matter in any eternal sense, she has reached the final stage on this spectrum of maturity. Now out from under the weight of the universe, she can relax and enjoy it.
Now more closely aligned with reality, she will be stronger.
She can still care about the people and causes she cared about before, but with a lighter heart.
The natives of Central America used to play a ball game in which the losing captain or even the entire losing team were sacrificed to the gods. Can you imagine the look of grim determination on the player’s faces!? Surely one’s prowess mattered more in that game than in a modern game of soccer, but sometimes a game is more enjoyable when you lower the stakes.