(I wrote this in 2013 in a a conversation with a friend, and decided to tidy it up a little and publish it for future reference. I also referenced this idea on Quora and HN, and in word vomits 0124, 0227, 0351 and 0540.)
In my late teens, I believed that the best way to deal with existential woes was to focus on building one’s legacy. There’s a filmmaker called Jason Silva who talks about this, quoting Ernest Becker’s 1973 work The Denial Of Death.
He describes how there are three broad approaches to coping with the inevitability of death:
- Religious solution: Believing in an afterlife where you will live forever with your loved ones.
- Romantic solution: Deifying our lovers, making them our saviors, and believing that we are immortalized in their eyes.
- Creative solution: Achieving immortality through transcendent art, creation, legacy that lives on after you’re gone.
I can’t quite manage the first. Like Richard Feynman, I find the idea of an afterlife for humans to be symptomatic of an overly local, provincial worldview. The universe is too vast to be built just for us. The notion of an afterlife is likely to be the projection of some sort of wiring in the brain. We see optical illusions all the time, and we experience consciousness (which is likely to be an illusion or a simulation of some sort). I can’t buy that.
“Immortality through love” is a testable hypothesis, and many people have tested it. Sadly, there’s a ton of literature that reveals how this inevitably yields to disappointment. The lover-gods ultimately reveal their clay feet. It’s simply too much to ask: nobody can bear the burden of the weight of another’s existence.
“Immortality through creativity”, then, seemed to be the most plausible solution. Our bodies will decay, but we can live on in the hearts and minds of the rest of humanity. Provoke, inspire, plant trees for the future. That’s what great humans did, and they were as immortal as it gets.
I was quite satisfied with this model for a long time.
But then I read up about the heat death of the universe.
And I came to realize that no matter how long we live on in the minds of others, eventually all the stars will burn out and the universe itself will die, become cold nothing. What happened to Ozymandias will happen to all of us.
I know that it doesn’t technically make a difference to our brief human lives.
But I used to cling to the illusion that some immortality could be achieved through legacy, and it gave me some sort of odd comfort. The heat death pulled that comforting carpet out from under my feet. (The characters in Isaac Asimov’s The Last Question experience this.)
Ruminating on the heat death made me realize this:
Living with the sole intention of building a legacy can be problematic.
If you’re not careful, it can easily become a form of escapism, avoiding the present by focusing on the future. It makes sense if what lingers after you’re gone will amount to something, but it ultimately won’t. All we have is the present moment. We are more fleeting than I had realised and grown comfortable with.
So. The dance will eventually end, the curtain will ultimately close, andnothing will be preserved. It’s all tracings in the sand in the grand cosmic beach. And for a while that troubled me.
But now I realise that I have less excuse than ever not to give my all to the present moment. I used to envy those movies or stories where characters are put in some sort of arbitrary constraints- and they’re compelled to make the most of their brief last moments.
But now I realize — we are all in these arbitrary constraints. We are allterminally ill. And a lot of what we hold on to, we hold on to out of fear, myopia, familiarity, and so on.
I worried for a while that this would compel me to become a selfish hedonist- why bother with honor, dignity, Grace etc if it’ll all be for nothing?
But that didn’t happen. My fundamental conviction in kindness and fulfillment through serving others remains unchanged. The fleetingness of all existence somehow makes it even more important that we be kind, because in the final end, there will be no opportunity for reparations, for redress. It’ll all just be washed away. So it has to be good while it lasts.
So what’s changed? I realize that I can no longer use legacy as an excuse to avoid facing the present.My “life’s work” isn’t the monolith sculpture in waiting I had envisioned it to be. I imagined life was like a massive block of marble and you have a limited time to carve something out of it. And I hated myself for procrastinating.
But no, it’s not quite like that. It’s not nearly so permanent, it’s not nearly so daunting, not nearly so singular.
Life is a lot more like a day at the beach.
You can build a castle to bring joy to others, you can meet people, go swimming, have a picnic. The analogy isn’t perfect because of the problems of sustenance — we also need food and shelter, and so we have to work, pay the bills, etc.
But just because we’re all tracings in the sand doesn’t mean it can’t be pretty, fun, joyous. And we smile and laugh (and maybe cry a little) and the sun sets and we go home, to bed. And that’s that. We can mourn the transience or we can live brightly while it lasts, with joy.
At a practical level I think this has made me change the way I prioritise things. I make more time for things I want to do while also acknowledging there’s no grand, absolute significance. (It’s all tracings in the sand.) What I do live for is to bring joy to others, but I can breathe easier not having as many expectations. There is no pressure whatsoever, ultimately.
This whole world view is admittedly very privileged- it excludes serious pain and suffering. But when I acknowledge my worries are relatively insignificant, I can help others more whole-heartedly. And when I do encounter difficulty, I am more willing and able to listen, and to see things as they are.
People should be free from fear and pain and suffering as much as possible, and people who are relatively better off should help those who are worse off- and service is always fulfilling so all of that is pretty elegant.
Why help others when life is so short? Because joy multiplies and intensifies, simple as that. It’s in our self-interest to be good to one another.
We’re all just tracing in the sand. Let’s make the most of it while we’re here.