Is this all there is?
Yup! It’s that time again… time for me to have my biannual existential breakdown. But don’t worry, I think I’ve made it through this one relatively fast…
Is this all there is?
I’ve asked myself that question many times and you know what? It seems that the answer is undeniably, yes! This is it! This is all there is. But why is that such a bad thing? Are our lives so awful that living a normal life has amounted to burdensome? Or is it just that our cappuccinos and heated seats aren’t doing it for us anymore? Like most big questions, I believe the answer is somewhat complicated and involves many layers. But I also believe that solving it and more importantly, coming to terms with it, can be achieved.
Growing up, I think we inherent a skewed sense of the world and how it works and what makes up a life. In America at least, we are told that we can be whatever we want and that the sky’s the limit. We’re fed over-the-top Hollywood blockbuster adventure movies – which may be originally intended for ‘entertainment purposes only’ – but which morph into what we perceive as the norm. These movies and books and TV shows continually add to the over abundant pop culture ideal life that basically brainwashes us with the sense that a ninja-spy-astronaut is what we’re all supposed to turn out to be. (Whether this is intentional or not – I doubt it – is beside the point.) But this lifestyle is simply not realistic. Today, having a nice meal with a friend pales in comparison to the extravagant indulgences of movie stars – actual and fictional. When we compare ourselves with others, we tend to get jealous and ultimately angry. The grass is always greener, right? I believe this is one cause of this feeling of lacking in our lives.
Another cause, at least for me personally, is not knowing my place; or more accurately, my direction. I believe this stems from the scale of the world. I believe that it may ultimately arise out of the knowledge of scale and where humans fit in the vastness of the Universe. Being an avid science and astronomy enthusiast, I’m painfully aware of our complete insignificance in this universe. There’s no way I can describe here in any meaningful way to even come close to accurately portraying how small we are and how little time we have to spend here. An individual’s conscious is so fleeting, as Carl Sagan once said, “We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it’s forever.” When I start considering life as a whole and my place among the stars, it seems that a life is meaningless among the noise. (Maybe ignorance is bliss.) Yes, the universe is big and we are small. But that doesn’t mean we are insignificant. When someone steps on your toe, I bet you think that person is pretty significant at that time, right? Again, it is all about scale. Compared to the vastness of space, it’s true we don’t matter. But we don’t interact with the vastness of space on a daily basis. We’re down here stepping on each others’ toes. Down here is what matters most of the time. As it turns out, I know my place, I’m down here! I just need to accept it and know that this is where I’m supposed to be. As far as direction well, that’s up to me to decide.
This is why I think having a too-broad overview of life can be distracting and harmful sometimes. While it is true that the unexamined life is not worth living, it is also true that we must not spend too much time reflecting so we can focus on the task at hand and move forward. You can’t drive down the road looking into the rearview mirror – or constantly looking down at the map for that matter. Often times you need to focus down from the big picture onto a very specific detail in order to progress. You NEED focused attention to mundane details to keep occupied and busy and contributing, which also keeps your mind on track and away from the personal-reflective doldrums. Have the map handy, but pay attention to the road signs and speed limits and dividing lines.
See how hard this is? I’d like to take a slight detour for a moment and express why I believe religion is so successful: the Universe is too big and humans haven’t evolved to cope with such scales. When given the answers to these big questions and told that the universe was put here for us, people feel warm and cozy and safe. That’s what religion does. It gives us the answers we all want, regardless of their validity. It tells us why we are here, what we’re here for, our place in it all, and where we’ll end up after it’s all over. What a deal, right?! The fact that most, if not all, of these claims are based on undeniably false premises is an entire separate discussion that I won’t get into here. But the fact that people have an innate desire for these answers is the reason why I bring this up. We have all dealt with this one time or another in our lives. Humans have dealt with this since antiquity. Evolutionarily speaking, I think we may be too smart, and too immature, for our own good. We’re smart enough to understand and comprehend, but haven’t evolved enough to effectively come to terms with it as a species yet.
What I believe this all boils down to is accepting your place in the universe. Understand that we are very privileged to get an opportunity to exist at all and be happy about that. Embrace that. Enjoy your run, take pride in your finished crossword puzzle, laugh at the guy on the radio, feel your kids’ heartbeat against your chest when you hug them; these are real moments that actually matter. This applies to your career as well whether you’re a farmer feeling the cool soft dirt roll off your hands or a computer scientist smiling happily as your code actually compiles without error – these moments are no less real.
Have a goal. Remain focused. And don’t just appreciate the little things, LIVE the little things. Because in the most true sense of the phrase, that’s all there is. This is it. And that’s OK. Truly…