We’ve all been dead for approximately 13.772 billion years.
The first law of thermodynamics states that energy (and thus mass) cannot be created nor destroyed. It can only be transformed from one form to another.
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The fundamental particles that make up you and me and everybody else are the same ones that combine to create planets, stars, and galaxies.
When we cease to be alive, they’ll combine into something else, just as they have combined from something before that into our bodies and brains. As that occurs, we’ll have many more billions of years of death ahead of us.
Within this tiny window of 100 or so years, between our deaths, what we have left is a state of being that allows a form of consciousness to arise.
We can feel and think and act, with some degree of intentionality, in a way that the vast majority of the mass and energy in the universe can’t.
This feeling and thinking and acting give us a degree of power that, to our current knowledge, no other sentient being can gloat to having. Indeed, it’s what’s responsible for our utter dominance of this planet and — a little less impressively — for our imagined self-importance.
It’s imagined because we’re all going to pass by. Both you and I. In almost every probable scenario, over the long-term, the universe is going to continue on without any tangible sign that it has been disturbed by our existence.
Ultimately, on scale, nothing we do matters. Our memories will be taken, and within a few millennia, so, too, will our legacies. Alexander, Shakespeare, Newton, and Napoleon will be nothing more than lost whispers.
Not inspiring but — as far as we know — true. What, then, is the point?
1. Death and Identity Are Not Relevant
In his masterpiece The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer tackled the idea of death perhaps better than anybody before and since.
The fear of death is among the most common anxieties faced by us because it marks the end of what we call life. Life is what we know and what we build an identity around, and the idea of having that stripped from us is terrifying.
We have created the concept of a legacy and a lasting memory to lessen its burden and to strip away part of the damage that we perceive it does to us, but we haven’t yet managed to overcome its power. In fact, on a subconscious level, much of our day to day behavior can be traced back to this.
As a result, we live for tomorrow. We delay gratification for ambition because by doing so, we’re able to momentarily contribute something to a future beyond our reach. Even if we don’t survive, the idea is that our identities will.
While this process does add joy to the lives of many people, taken to the extreme, it’s problematic because it’s built on a subconscious foundation of fear.
Schopenhauer’s insight was that death isn’t the opposite of life. In fact, what we call life is just one part of something that’s occurring on a cosmic scale.
It represents a larger turning point in which the mass and energy that create our concept of reality at any given moment slowly cease to do so. There is nothing to feel or experience once that occurs just like there was nothing to feel or experience before birth.
There is no pain. There is no pleasure. There is no awareness. While the idea of nothingness terrifies our living selves, when we do transform into such a state, we’re not going to have any concept of it.
Even if our memories and legacies fade as the universe ages, we have no true cause to worry. There is no reason to believe that such an experience will be any different from a deep, dreamless sleep in which we are unaware of reality and in which we don’t have an identity to associate with.
Death will occur when it occurs. It’s a problem as long as we make it a problem.
As such, it doesn’t matter that nothing matters because it’s not about us, and it never has been. The egotistical lens through which we see the world as needing us to do something to it is flawed. It’s not about the importance of our contributions, but it’s about an ongoing process in the universe.
Death, identity, and accomplishments are not relevant.
2. Disrupting Consciousness Is What Matters
The best marker we have of our definition of human life is our consciousness.
It’s what gives us the awareness to question and categorize our existence, and it’s what’s responsible for our perception of everything that this world has to offer us. It’s how you’re able to read this sentence at this moment.
Every experience you have comes from your mind, and it’s created in your brain. You may see sights, and you may hear sounds in what appears to be outside the reality of your body, but these sights and sounds are translated from the signals sent by your nervous systems in your head.
Even if nothing else is true about our observation of reality, this one fact has to, on some level, contain an aspect that can’t be disputed. It’s what underlies Rene Descartes famous assertion, “I think, therefore I am.”
In fact, our consciousness is what separates us from the death we so fear.
But if death isn’t relevant, and our identity isn’t infinite, then the only thing that is relevant is the experience of being aware while it’s still possible.
What’s important isn’t to extend our lives through a temporary legacy beyond awareness, but it’s to experience, alter, and disrupt consciousness in ways that add some sense of joy or meaning to our day to day existence.
What you leave behind and what you do shouldn’t matter in relation to the universe, but it should matter only in the context of the experience you have while you are still alive and can relate to it.
Whatever values you hold and whatever you define as true and important in life is worthy only because of how you feel about it based on your own experience of reality over a sustained and flexible period of time.
The fact that you’ve changed the world or sacrificed for your friends and family is of no consequence beyond the impact it ends up having on how you experience life and how that disrupts your memory moving forward.
Nothing you do to alter the universe matters, which, paradoxically, doesn’t matter either. The quality of your conscious experience is what does.
3. It All Comes Down to What You Do Right Now
People often say that there are no new ideas. When it comes to understanding the human condition, in particular, this is especially true.
There is little we know today about what it takes to live a full life that hadn’t already been figured out and addressed in a different framework by the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese, and the Buddhists.
Much of this wisdom has been turned into trite and cliched soundbites that ask you to “value the little things” and to “be present” and to “enjoy the process.”
While the fact that they are cliches doesn’t diminish their truth, it does desensitize us to their message. We hear it in one ear, and it ends up out of the other one. We acknowledge, but we never really internalize. We keep looking ahead, we keep looking back, and we ignore what’s in front of us.
Well, if the reality we know only ever derives its meaning from consciousness and its experience, and not from any impact that we are likely to have, then the only way to live meaningfully is to actually experience it.
It’s to actually prioritize and force yourself to “value the little things” and to“be present” and to “enjoy the process.” It’s to make a tacit but intentional effort to shut off the voice in your head that concerns itself with a past that no longer exists and a future that is nothing more than imagined.
We talked about a fear of death being mostly irrational, but we didn’t quite go over why it tends to persist in spite of us knowing that fact.
It’s because of the reminder it provides of every moment we didn’t treasure with those close to us. Every moment we let by out of anger and petty frustrations. Every moment we spent caring about the wrong things.
It reinforces the fact that this is indeed it. There is nothing more out there other than the alteration of your consciousness on a day to day basis, and everything you do gains its value not from some perceived contribution that you associate with your personal identity but from how well you are able to engage with this consciousness.
The purpose of life isn’t to accomplish. It’s to experience. Right now.