The Answer To The “Nagging Question”? Context!

In the context of the universe, this thing that I call “me”
Is completely insignificant, and might as well not be.
I could disappear tomorrow, and the universe won’t care
Cos creation, for the most part, never knew that I was there.

In the context of the galaxy, it’s just about the same
Around three hundred billion stars that never heard my name
Between the stars and planets, there is mostly empty space
And all—well, nearly all—of it would never know my face.

In the context of the planet, it’s the same thing, more or less
Some seven billion people in a crowded, massive mess
I’ve encountered tens of thousands—so, not even one percent
If I disappeared tomorrow, few would wonder where I went.

In the context of my country, some three hundred million strong
You might think I’m slightly better known; alas, you would be wrong.
I’m anonymous, invisible, irrelevant, unknown
In the context of these numbers, I’m still pretty much alone.

In the context of my neighborhood, you’ll notice me at last
When I shovel out your driveway when the winter storm has passed
When I drive your kid to soccer, when your plans have gone awry
While I might not fix your problem, well, at least I’m going to try.

In the context of my family, or my teaching, or these blogs
I’m the one who captures spiders, or the one who walks the dogs
I’m the one the students come to when they want the best advice
I’m the one who wrote that thing you liked—well, maybe once or twice
I’m the one who read you stories as you went to bed at night
I’m the one who helped you move that couch (when others said they might)
I’m the one who hugged you, crying, when your world was torn apart
I’m the one who’ll always love you, to the last beat of my heart.

In the context of eternity, my life is but a blip
Just a fraction of a second, then away that life will slip
I know I’ve said this once before—I think I’ll take the chance:
Since the music plays so briefly… can you blame me if I dance?

An extraordinarily badly thought-out question just showed up on a Patheos blog that I am pretty certain I was once banned from. Frank Shaeffer asks the musical question “I have a nagging question for my atheist friends: if we’re nothing, why bother to convince us of our nothingness? Who cares?” From the title onward, either ignorance or willful misrepresentation abounds. Why do I argue with people like this? In part because they lie about me. In part because what they believe matters, in law, in culture, in schools. Because if I think “why bother?”, I have ceded to ignorance. Because I am a teacher, and a parent, and a member of the community, and I care.

I am nothing–or nearly so–only in some contexts. And I absolutely agree that I am nothing, and am an accident, and have no purpose… in those contexts. I don’t, as a rule, live my life in those contexts.

Some believers (not all, of course) have invented a God who is bigger than the universe, but still cares enough about them as individuals to have numbered the hairs on their heads. But the funny thing is, that God doesn’t matter to the majority of other people on this planet, let alone to the solar system, galaxy, or universe. That God is, in the grand scheme of things, as insignificant as I am.

And in the context of my own family, that God is considerably less significant than any of the fish in our aquarium, let alone the cats or dogs, let alone my family members. That god is less significant, in that context, than I am to the universe. At least I exist.


  1. Jeff Engel says

    I think, if you’re not the universe, you ought to adopt the perspective of the universe carefully and be willing to ditch it the moment it’s not working for you. “Doctor, it hurts when I contemplate my insignificance in the global scheme of things…”

    And thanks. It never hurts to be reminded of just where our value and satisfaction come from.

  2. Ed says

    Very good point, Jeff! A lot of these existential crises that lead either to supernaturalism as a solution or accepting that there is no solution and you have to be miserable come from the habit of ignoring appropriate context.

    –No one will probably remember you a generation after you’ve died!
    –Well, I won’t be thinking about them, either. :)

  3. says

    Fill the unforgiving minute
    With 60 seconds’ worth of distance run. — Kipling

    We each must build, ere time is flown,
    A stumbling block or a stepping stone. — Anon.

    For want of a horseshoe nail, the kingdom was lost. — Ancient proverb

    160 billion light years through
    The Universe kept on till it made you. — Kate Jones

    The reward for a thing well done is to have done it. — Emerson

    “Not perfect” by Tim Minchin —

    Insignificant? Not when your thoughts live after you,
    Enriching future cultures you never knew.
    People may not always know your name,
    But your vibrations touch them all the same.
    No entity will judge you, now or ever…
    You alone choose your every endeavor.
    In all of time, each life just once appears,
    So carve your meaning from your earthly years,
    Becoming part of mankind’s DNA.
    So live your priceless value every day.

  4. Heaventree says

    One of your very best, Cuttlefish, both the verse and the comment. I rarely read something that captures my own sentiments perfectly, but this does, so thanks.

  5. Thinker says

    I agree that this is one of your best! Life, and Dance, has to be interpreted in the proper context… Indeed, maybe Life, and Dance, are all about finding the context we feel at ease with?

    “Since the music plays so briefly… can you blame me if I dance?”

    As Bard and Cuttlefish say well, our context is a stage:
    We dance there from the time we’re born until our oldest age.
    Audition-less, we enter it, with no chance to rehearse.
    The choreography’s our own – for better or for worse.

    At times we have to shimmy to someone else’s song:
    The steps we take feel awkward, the rhythm just feels wrong.
    But listening and testing, we find a novel turn
    or shuffle of our own to add; we improvise and learn!

    We hustle, jig and boogie, we cakewalk, twist and jive.
    We reel and break, and through it all, our self becomes alive.
    Yet solo moves are not enough, we yearn for even more:
    A partner for a pas de deux who really makes us soar.

    For fun and challenge, then proceed to toss out “mine – all mine!”
    And find a troupe or company and join the chorus line.
    The feeling of togetherness approaches the sublime
    When many move in unison, in step, in sync, in time.

    No matter how my body moves or how I nimbly flex it,
    My time on stage is limited, and I will have to exit.
    Yet as the music stops its beat – the drum that is my heart –
    I hope I think: “The show goes on, but boy, I danced my part!”

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