“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.