Humans are a tragic race. By which I mean our lives are deeply significant and almost all end in or suffer a major unhappy event.
Jordan Peterson said not to be jealous of anyone, because in the end everyone suffers. Something like that. I’d never thought about it, but lately it’s much on my mind, particularly as my friends and relatives age. There is always,even in the most blessed of old ages, significant loss of self-ownership, of pride, of ability. And then there are those who die young.
But the true tragedy of humans is something else, and if anyone really wants to pinpoint what was “the apple in the garden” this makes a far better candidate than sex, a pasttime we share with all animals and truth be told most of life on Earth.
The true tragedy of humans is that we can think the infinite and imagine the forever, while stuck in definitely mortality-bounded bodies with puny lifespans.
Even when I was eight, I liked history, but history was two thousand years and more ago. Fifty years ago? A hundred years ago? That is merely slightly older news and somewhat yellowed newspapers, the significance of which we haven’t yet fully seen.
And yet, against that compare a mortal life span which is at most a hundred and some years.
Better writers than myself have compared us to flickers in the night or actors who “strut and fret our brief time upon the stage.”
But our minds, our inner selves, want the infinite. We want to see the past and the future.
For this the traditional paliative is knowing we are part of something greater. In the simplest sense: we came from our parents, and we pass on to our children and grandchildren. Or perhaps: we are part of this great organization, this great purpose, be it a nationality, a church, a work.
This is how the monks of old found purpose and peace in their service. And how kings started Cathedrals their grandchildren would follow and build on.
So, what do we make of it, we people of the twenty first century, many of whom never married, and even more of whom never had children, or whose children never had children. We in a culture that changes so fast, we can’t guess what great work will help the future, and which hinder it? Or even if some great invention will change things so much that our lives and works make no sense to anyone?
Me? I am religious, though not conventionally so (no, trust me, it might be impossible for me to be conventionally anything) and have made my peace with the idea my self is just the present expression of something greater that might or might not go on forever, but if it does will be in such a form I don’t fully comprehend it. And I have a mission. Well, several, but one of them I can try for though I’m utterly inadequate to it: I want humanity to go to the stars, as I think that will allow us to grow more. (I could be totally wrong, but at any rate my pushing and shoving will hurt no one, and it’s largely ineffectual.)
But at this threshold, where I can sense life narrowing to the end (not yet. Hopefully not for a long time, though you know, we can all be recalled, like defective products, at any time) I am vaguely alarmed at the vast multitudes older than I who are already in that narrowing path, and who have nothing to send into the future.
A lot of them try to breach that distance with art or self expression, and if it works for them, I’m all for it. Me? I have no delusions. My scribblings at best will outlast me for half a day. And that’s if they’re not gone and forgotten before I am.
A lot more of them, alas, are trying to create their legacy by making others slaves to their delusions. Witness our geriatric left, or the ossified members of WEF, trying to make all humans slaves to their visions that they think are utopian, but which are in fact the worst of dystopias.
Worse, a lot of them seem to have a sense this work is already in vain, and so to their mad designs is added a not inconsiderable amount of hatred and loathing for all those who will survive them, and for the species itself. They aim at nothing less than the extinction of all humans, as though they were gods who could replace us with something better. They do truly aim to reign in hell, even after death, leaving the Earth scoured of humans or maybe of all life.
So what do we do? We need that connection, to our past and to our future. It is part of how we’re built. And the future is such a long time. And none of us can be sure we will have our blood there, a lot of us know we won’t, and the howling infinity of nothing comes upon us in the dark hours of the night, when we stare at the ceiling and ask if we matter, if we ever mattered.
First, dispose of the idea that leaving descendants is the best thing. Those of us who are on 23andme can tell you that a great grandmother has about as much in common with her great grandkids as a second cousin.
Yes, it’s instinctive and we all want children. I, myself, want biological granchildren and would love to see them grow. But in the end? Bah. We came from that vast ocean of human genetics. We’re unique to ourselves but made of common parts. And maybe somewhere in the future there will be someone who has almost the same deck of cards (unlikely, but the future is a long time.) That’s all any of us can know.
Second, raising children is not that, of course. It’s both a shout of hope into the future, saying “You have no defeated me. I live!” and something not entirely rational. (It is also the most exhilarating task I, at least, have ever put my mind and hands to. And the most humbling, because children have free will and will never be what you mold them to be. For better or worse, their totality will elude you. And your mark on them will not be what you expect.)
Third, your works of art might or might not significant. Yes, Master Shakespeare, or for that matter Robert A. Heinlein, left behind work that far outstrips any descendants they might have had (and they had none, RAH immediately, and Shakespeare having only one granddaughter who died childless.) It is something to hope for, to be sure, but like children, both something you can’t count on, and something that might turn out very differently from what you expect. (Seriously. What would poor RAH think if he’d been vouchsafed the knowledge he’d been the major formative influence on a little girl in Portugal? Or that she’d come to disagree with him on as much as she agreed, while still respecting his influence and ideas?)
Fourth… It doesn’t matter. None of it matters.
There is a perversion and an evil in trying to control the future after you’re gone. I think it’s that whole “trying to be like gods.”
There is a perversion and an evil too in falling in despair and wailing “But then why do I matter?” It also looks fairly ridiculous. Or at least it does when I do it. And trust me, flailing your arms and legs about doesn’t help. It only looks cute on two year olds. I know this from experience.
We have to accept that though we can dream of forever and infinite, our minds are really almost as limited as our bodies. The futures we foresee are rarely correct, because our minds are bounded by what we were taught as children, and can only reach as far as our limited perceptions. You don’t know how the words you said today affect someone who affects someone, who affects someone. Now multiply that by the entire population of the world. We can’t know and we can’t see.
The idea we’ll vanish utterly and never matter is as much a delusion as the idea that we can control what the future looks like and encompass forever.
Neither is possible.
Every contact lives a trace. By living, you affect all those around you. Heck, there are children stillborn or miscarried who affected the destiny of the world in measurable ways, and not just those of royal blood. Their almost-existence changed those around them.
And this doesn’t mean you should be in the corner, shivering with fear of doing wrong.
Live your life as best and as joyfully as you can. If it’s all going to, in the personal front, end in tears, so to put it, make it as joyous and as …. large as you can, so the tears are cathartic and not just despair.
Forgive yourself for what you can’t.
And be sure that things you’ve said and done will resonate long after you’re gone. No, they might not be the things you expect to have an effect. Heaven knows, even what my own kids took from what I tried to impart often makes me tilt my head sideways and go “uh, what?” but it will be pieces of you, going forth into the future.
We live in a uniquely dangerous moment, in which rootless and seemingly futureless people, armed with a cult like certainty in the omnipotence of their delusions, try to shape the future in their own, limited image, corrupted by an anti-human philosophy.
All we have to counter it is joy, love, charity. Living life as fully as we can. Loving as fully as we can.
And yeah, as you’ve been expecting, in the end we win they lose. Because in the long run, joy and love trump a sterile “planned future” any day of the week and twice on Sunday.
Be not afraid. Go and do the best you can, and trust the future to take the best of you, and shine it forever into eternity, like pieces of a beautiful stained glass window that become part of an infinite mural and shine to inspire ages yet unborn.