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May 21 2012

“Don’t Think Your Life Didn’t Matter”

Ando Hiroshige, Evening Snow at Kanbara. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Leaving religion can be soul-crushing, at first. The memory of all that pain has faded for me, and it wasn’t as if I’d spent my life immersed in faith. I’d just been raised to believe God was out there, somewhere, and had a fleeting flirtation with Pentecostalism, before a years-long seeking after something. Something huge, something magical, something that would make this world have meaning. I did have the crisis: if there’s nothing but us, isn’t this all futile? Doesn’t that mean it’s meaningless?

I found no gods, no magic, no higher powers, nothing: in nothing, found everything I ever needed or wanted. Paradox? Perhaps. Truth is, I don’t miss the supernatural. I don’t yearn for it anymore. Nothing is full of everything. This universe, physicists think, may just possibly have come from “nothing.” Nothing’s really something! But it’s not really that sort of nothing I’m talking about, but the absence of supernatural somethings. Nothing supernatural exists turns out to be a fantastic universe to live in.

It’s just that when you’ve been taught to see the supernatural as the only thing that gives life meaning, that’s a hard nothing to swallow.

I was reminded of that reading Lisa’s blog, Broken Daughters, over the weekend. In October 2011, there’s this soul cry:

I really admire the way atheists can deal with life. Life is a journey, there is no judgement, enjoy it while you can cause once the light is out, it’s really out. Nothingness. Darkness. The end. And the audience gets up, wipes the last pieces of popcorn off their clothes and leaves. That was a nice movie, they’ll say. What was it about? Forgotten before we reach home. Who cares, there’s many other movies to watch.

If that is true then I have wasted my life. Or at least parts of it. There is nobody who wants my best, who makes sure I do all the things I need to do before I die. I might get hit by a bus tomorrow and that’s that.

Yup. Absolutely true. Hell, you don’t even have to leave the house: choke on a chicken bone, slip in the shower, and the curtain goes down on your life. Over and done. There was a time when that terrified me, back when I needed to believe. Utterly paralyzed me. To the point where I had a crisis every time I had to travel. There was me, going down the checklist as I packed: toothbrush, underwear, legacy? If I didn’t leave a legacy behind, what good was I? What good was my life? I’d be so upset if I died without finishing my books! So useless!

And then, one day after becoming an atheist, going into that panic mode, I stopped and laughed. Heartily laughed. What did it matter if I died? I wouldn’t know about it. There’s no me left to care. No soul up in Heaven, looking down (or, if you believe some, in Hell looking up) mourning all of those things I haven’t finished. So what am I doing here worrying about it when I could be enjoying the journey instead?

Some people may believe that’s nihilistic, that joy in nothing. But I don’t see it that way. It’s freed me. I no longer spend major portions of my day fretting over death. I don’t mourn my life before it’s over. I used to. Don’t now. I just plunge in to the things I love to do: my geology and my writing and movies and teevee and music and adventures with friends and cuddles with kitteh and, even, on occasion, quality time with family. I eat food I really like. I read books I enjoy. I don’t live each day as if it were my last, because that’s stupid advice: do you really think I’d be going to work in the morning if this were my last day on earth? But no matter how shitty the day is, I seek out a little joy in it. Every single day, there’s something wonderful, no matter how dismal everything else is. Every single day, I can say if I check out now, the people I leave behind don’t have to worry if I’d feel any regrets. For one thing, I can’t feel a damn thing. I’m dead. For another, it’s been a good ol’ life, on the whole, and I got to do quite a bit of what I wanted, and I did the best I could. Not everything. We’ve already established it’ll take immortality to achieve that, and even then, I doubt infinity will be quite long enough. But there’s very little I’d change. And don’t feel bad for me, dying with so much to look forward to, all those things I wanted to do and never got the chance. I got to look forward to them. That’s a joy all to itself, that anticipation.

I wasn’t so sanguine before I became an atheist. I always had shoulds and gonna regrets if I don’t dos hanging over my head. Now, I don’t. And that has made living all the sweeter. Especially since I’m determined to live, as fully and productively as possible.

But let me revisit this bit:

There is nobody who wants my best, who makes sure I do all the things I need to do before I die.

Oh, my dear. Oh, Lisa. I nearly cried right there, I did, because sweetheart, it’s not true.

No god wants your best. But you’ve got friends who love you, root for you, absolutely want your best. You’ve got readers. You’ve got family (your aunt, at the very least). Can we make sure you “do all the things” before you die? No. No one can. Even God, if one existed, couldn’t. All you can do is what everyone else does: enough. You’ll leave unfinished business behind. That’s inevitable. But you’ll have accomplished plenty, as long as you keep on keeping on. Keep doing stuff. Love and life and adventure and ordinary things and the occasional bit of extraordinary, if you’re able. In the end, no one needs to say you did it all. Just that you did. Just that you lived, as best you could, as fully as you could.

And Lisa: you can already say that. Trust me. I read your entire blog. I know you’ve touched lives. I know you’ve done extraordinary things. You’ll do more in the time you’ve got left. You’ll do all you can, and that’s enough.

And we, your friends, your readers, wanted your best. You know what? We got it.

That’s my criteria these days. When those moments come when I step out of the house and know I may never see it again, because shit happens – the Cascadia subduction zone could slip today, and the building at work may not be quite as earthquake-resistant as they believe it is. In those moments, I know I haven’t done all. My novels aren’t finished, my non-fiction books aren’t written, I haven’t seen Series 7 of Doctor Who or heard the new Epica album. I haven’t figured out New England’s bizarre geology, or learned how to cook chicken tikka masala. All of that’s okay. I wrote this blog, touched lives, sometimes changed them. I had a hell of a lot of fun. I did as much as I could without driving myself insane by driving myself too hard. People wanted my best: they got the best I could give, and they’ve appreciated it, will remember it. Hopefully, if the cat survives me, they will also remember to feed her, despite her evil disposition.

All that I have is a bunch of memories in my brain, and once my time is over they’ll rot away with the rest. Forgotten for eternity. Who will remember me? …. Vanishing as if they’d never been there. That is my fate, and yours too, if there is no God.

Oh, yes. that terrified me, too. That need for some sort of immortality drove me, nearly drove me insane, made me mourn every birthday because I hadn’t published my magnum opus yet and I’d be totes forgotten. I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know why we need this eternal memory so very much. I don’t need it now. Oh, surely, it would be nice: have my name echo down through the ages like Sappho and Shakespeare. I’d very much love my words to matter that long. It’s a goal. But. But. This isn’t bad, this temporary immortality. A generation, perhaps two, friends and family who have fond living memories of me. Another generation or two, perhaps, that will hear of Dana Hunter, before she quietly fades away, and the world goes on without her. That’s not bad. That’s the least we can expect, and it’s not bad at all. Meanwhile, our molecules and atoms will go cheerfully on. Whether they know it or not, a little bit of Dana, which once was a little bit of a star and who knows what else on its way to being me, will be a little bit of someone or something else. Do I need a god to remember me, to validate my existence? Do I need a god to trace all those atoms that were once Dana? No. I’ve had friends and family and readers. I’ve had my cat. I’ve had strangers who never knew my name, but know a delightful new fact because of me. I’ve had enough. Not all, but enough. And part of me marches on, to become someone else, who perhaps will never be forgotten. Who knows?

I certainly won’t. Dead, remember? What’s fame to the no-longer-existent? No worries! So why waste time worrying about it now?

Speaking of waste:

I might seem like a calm person but I’m constantly afraid. Where’d I put my time? It’s running through my fingers like water, dripping on thirsty ground. There’s nothing I can do to get it back. Sometimes I want to scream, at my family, my friends, at my readers, at random people on the street: “DO SOMETHING! Time is short! Do something with it! You’re wasting!”

But every life has its “wasted” moments. Moments we could’ve spent doing something else, something “important,” something different. Every single life ever lived is full of wasted time. But every single one of those moments went in to making you who and what you are. Useful or useless, they’re all part of the package. So, you’re not rich, famous, a saint. You haven’t cured cancer, you haven’t written deathless prose (although you can’t know the prose you wrote is terminal, not until long after you’re gone, so the jury’s still out on that one). You haven’t done it all. What is this “all?” What is it compared to the things you have done? Those wasted moments and wasted opportunities are a necessary part of you. Without them, you wouldn’t be you.

And you have used them to touch the lives around you. Who says that’s a waste? By whose criteria? Certainly not by mine. I “wasted” a lot of time reading your blog when I should have been reading papers on Mount St. Helens and East Coast geology, or working on my books, or blogging. I “waste” my time with a lot of people that way. And you know what? I do not feel that time was wasted at all. You’ve become a part of me, part of my strength and understanding and love for this world. You’ve become an inspiration, and someone I’m rooting for, and someone who helps me become more compassionate.

Yes, our time is a finite resource. We do not have eternity. We can’t completely piss our time away. But those idle moments, those moments spent doing something other than what we’re “supposed” to, those moments headed in the “wrong” direction, they’re an important and necessary part of us. The only time I’d advise you to stop wasting is the time spent regretting them, although not altogether, because that regret isn’t always wasted either, now, is it? Every moment makes us who we are.

The point is this: your life matters, and matters intensely, with or without enduring memory. It matters now. It matters very much right now, to you and to those who love you. It will have mattered very much while there are still those alive who remember you. And it will have mattered just as much in a future you’re long forgotten in, because for this time, you mattered. That doesn’t go away. Not ever. Not just because a god isn’t there to remember. This universe might have been similar, but not exactly the same, without you. Just because, in some future you’re not even conscious of, someone doesn’t remember it was precisely you who existed and mattered intensely in that long-ago fragment of time, doesn’t make your life right now any less important.

There is a poem by Basho. It’s a poem that started running in a continuous loop through my mind as I read your post. Here is is:

An autumn night.
Don’t think your life
Didn’t matter.

How often has that poem floated through my mind! In moments when some small thing has happened that has made me delighted to be alive. I’ve thought of it when viewing ephemeral cherry blossoms, and hearing bird song, and reading words of interesting but not quite famous people. What a gift that little haiku is! What a centering, calming triplet of lines, those three, reminding me to slow down and breathe and exist and cease worrying about Meaning with a capital M, but enjoy the little-m meanings that fill a life.

Basho didn’t need a god to write those lines. We don’t need a god to appreciate them. We don’t need religion to give them impact. They are very human lines. They’ve survived for over three centuries now, and I will not be surprised if, should time travel be invented and I ever visit a far-flung future, they should be found thousands of years hence, reminding another generation of humans who stumble across them that a life matters.

By a human, for humans, inspired by a human. Basho wrote them for his niece-by-marriage, Jutei, a Buddhist nun. His nephew, her husband, died of tuberculosis; he began taking care of her and his grand-nieces and nephews; she herself died, not long after; he wrote those three lines for her.

An autumn night.
Don’t think your life
Didn’t matter.

Without Basho, his nephew, his nephew’s wife, all of the people who had existed before them who had made their birth possible, all of the people around them who had made these people who they were, those three lines wouldn’t exist. Without all of them, no simple yet profound little haiku. No three lines popping up all over the place, meaning something to people over three hundred years later, losing none of their beauty and poignancy even if you didn’t know their story (which I didn’t, until tonight).

Those lives mattered. Most of them had no idea just how much. We will never know just how much our lives matter. There are no gods who know. Perhaps people in the future will never know. But just because there’s this don’t-know, that doesn’t make us matter any less.

Don’t think your life didn’t matter.

Mount Unzen in Autumn. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    Otrame

    That is the best essay one this subject I have ever read. Brilliant and beautiful.

  2. 2
    busterggi

    The pain does return at times.

    When my mother was dying last year I so wanted to pray for her to recover but it was impossible for me, I just couldn’t return my mind to believing.

    I know it wouldn’t have made a difference but it made me feel more powerless than I ever have before.

  3. 3
    sqlrob

    You keep decrying nihilism in this piece, but really, all this piece is is support of nihilism.

    Atheism is, pure and simple, nihilistic. There’s no objective purpose, which is nihilism. There’s no moral judgement in saying that. The word just has a bad rap, the same way the word atheist does.

    1. 3.1
      Mr.Kosta

      What a moron.

      Nihilism means “belief in nothing”. Atheists believe in a number of things, therefore we aren’t nihilists. It’s just that your deity of choice isn’t among those things.

  4. 4
    Ariel

    Thanks for this post. Thanks a lot also for making me notice Lisa’s blog.

    I no longer spend major portions of my day fretting over death. I don’t mourn my life before it’s over. I used to. Don’t now. I just plunge in to the things I love to do …

    And good for you. No irony here, I mean it. Unfortunately, I’m one of those who are incapable of following your example. Lisa’s words resonate in me deeply. As for your words, I can accept them only on an external, superficial level . Like: somewhere there, in the outer space, there are sentient beings able to function in the way you described. And dinosaurs also existed. Roger that. Accepted.

    The point is this: your life matters, and matters intensely, with or without enduring memory. It matters now. It matters very much right now, to you and to those who love you. It will have mattered very much while there are still those alive who remember you. And it will have mattered just as much in a future you’re long forgotten in, because for this time, you mattered. That doesn’t go away. Not ever.

    Block-universe vision as a consolation … yeah, right. If this works for you, it’s just great. Again no irony. It doesn’t work for me though. I have two problems with it:

    1. My mind is strangely asymmetric. Fears, hopes, joys, meanings – from my point of view, all of those refer primarily (and quite asymmetrically) rather to the present or future events than to the past ones. I do not fear the past, I fear the future. I have no hopes for the past. Past joys are meaningful at present inasmuch as I (or someone else) can e.g. revive them somehow in my mind at present. Otherwise they were perhaps meaningful in their time; but they are not meaningful any more. They are, you know, past and dead, together with their meanings. Yeah, I know it’s just personal. My mind is simply still the same as in the stone age: asymmetric. But just give me one million years more, and my brain will accommodate. Then perhaps I will start fearing a last year’s heart operation and enjoying a forgotten, past breakfast! Until I evolve in this direction, my emotional gut reaction is: these people are dead. Their lives don’t matter anything here and now. Period. The same will happen with me. And I can only repeat bitterly after Lisa: “Who cares, there’s many other movies to watch.” I try not to think of it too often. It’s dreadful, depressing and paralyzing. It sucks. I envy you if you are free from that.

    2. There is also the problem of others. As for my own life, the hell with it. For better or worse, I can manage. Unimportant. But what about others? How do I know that their lives “mattered, and mattered intensely”? How many sentient creatures died with their lives being an agony, meaningless even for themselves? Sometimes I say to myself: stop it. Just stop it. It’s horrible but lots of that is not with us anymore. It’s the past. Dead. But now you come and say (that’s at least how I apply your words – incorrectly?): no my sweetie, these horrors will always matter, forgotten or not. They will not go away. Not ever. But don’t worry, be happy, drink coca-cola.

    I guess I’m emotionally closer to Lisa than to you here. Sorry. I would prefer to be more on your side.

  5. 5
    Cunning Pam

    Dana, this is beautiful, and very timely for me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

  6. 6
    Trebuchet

    Wonderful! Even better than your nature posts, which I love.

    And speaking of nature: Look at pretty much any picture from the Hubble telescope. Look at your pictures of the redwings from yesterday. Look at a kitty. Look at a sunset. Nature is, itself, super. I can’t even understand why people need to invents something “supernatural” which can’t even measure up to all that!

  7. 7
    Brianne Bilyeu

    This is a lovely piece about atheism, living life to the fullest, being the best we can be and making every minute count. Simply beautiful. Well done, Dana! Thank you.

  8. 8
    Mark

    I’ve wrestled with many of those same issues myself. Intellectually, I can recognize the truth of much of what you wrote, Dana. It’s getting that pesky emotional side to understand it that’s the real challenge. I don’t imagine it’s something exclusive to Americans, but I do suspect that we have it worse than some. It’s that narcissistic self-importance that gets drilled into our heads by our parents and our society, disguising itself as the American Dream. “You can be anything you want,” which all too often seems to translate to, “you *must* become someone great, famous, wealthy, powerful.”

    I think we all want some part of ourselves to continue into the future. I try to remind myself that even the busts on Mount Rushmore will be gone and long forgotten someday. And in the grand scheme of things, that ‘someday’ is really not that far off. Very few people will know who Teddy Roosevelt was 200 years from now. Already, few among the general population really know much of anything about him. Perhaps in 500 years or so, almost no one will know who George Washington was. Maybe in as little as 1000 years, few will know or care that a man named Jesus Christ was purported to have existed.

    I try to recognize that no matter how “great” I might have become, in the not-so-distant future, very few people will know or care that I ever existed. At that point, the best I can hope for is to plant a few seeds while I am here. That my presence, in some small way, might affect the people around me, who in turn, will affect the people around them, and so on. And maybe, just maybe, somewhere in there, my ideas will have had some small effect on the future of humanity.

  9. 9
    george.w

    I guess you’ve hit a chord; I’ve written about ten first-sentences for this comment, and held down the backspace key on every one.

  10. 10
    Sparks

    Thank you Dana. I occasionally find myself a bit overwhelmed by that fear bullshit and it’s pieces like the one you just offered us that drive that nonsense away. Ah……lovely peace. Now, where are those cats? I just know they want to be harassed!

    Thanks again. And again. And again.
    Sparks

  11. 11
    Masque of Red

    I feel like this has put my general outlook on life in far more eloquent terms. A lot of theists I talk to don’t understand my lack of worry over being dead for the rest of time. I might just refer them here. Lol

  12. 12
    SherryH

    Lovely. Thank you for this. I wish I had something really profound to say in return, but I don’t. I’m just going to drift away and think about this post for a while.

  13. 13
    bksea

    A great read. I, for one, have never comprehended this idea that religion gives meaning to life. In my view, saying there is an afterlife and that this life is just a trial run robs this life of any meaning wahtsoever. What is the minimum I have to do to get to this next life? I’ll spend the rest of the time sitting on the couch eating potato chips. Why go out looking for trilobites when I’m just waiting to die so I can get to the real show?

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