It’s hard to let go. To be one among billions, and really appreciate your smallness against the mind-blowing scope of the cosmos. It’s hard to come to the point in your life when you begin to know yourself and understand that you are nothing — and at the same time everything, but only to yourself. It imposes a certain humility which doesn’t come easily to a society obsessed with fame and the unparalleled value of the individual. We want so badly to be special, to make our atom of time become relevant to someone other than ourselves. To be seen, to be heard. Not to drift alone in the vastness of space-time, but to link ourselves with others and inflate our existence beyond its natural limitations. We leave words on the path behind us. We show each other pictures, relics we’ve picked up along the way. We share our stories — each so very like the others, each convinced of its meaning and uniqueness, its sovereign right to exist.

I’ve been struggling with this myself. Humility is my superpower, my cloak, yet even for someone accustomed to smallness, there is the awful human tendency to bloat one’s self-importance and cling to the dream of mattering. Sometimes I lie in bed with my inner voice whispering, You are nothing, just let go, picturing my body as a grain of sand on an infinite beach, and reaching for the comfort in that image, the release from want. The trouble, of course, is that our grain of sand is locked in place with all the others, so the scope of the beach can scarcely be imagined. We are aware of what immediately surrounds us. By shifting ourselves, we hope to shift others, so we work all our lives to move, to rub up against the world and make it move with us.

It’s a struggle to balance these two ideas over the abyss of true sentience. The sum total of everything we are — every atom in our struggling bodies, every flicker of thought, god-given talent, and act of heroism, no matter how noble or prodigious we might be — is zero. Zilch. Nada. Nothing, man. You are nothing, just let go.

Does it matter to you?

7 responses

  1. This is the Buddhist concept of “no self” which I still struggle to understand. We are all connected so I am everything, and yet all things are impermanent and constantly changing so I am nothing. My self (body and mind) is ever changing, never fixed, and so I have no self. Even as I write it, I don’t know if I have it right. 😉

    • You’re right — I might be Buddhist. That’s exactly how I feel, or how I try to feel. It’s hard to let go of the self as a fixed object, but it feels right to embrace the impermanence. It goes along with the scientific concept of entropy, in which everything ordered moves ineluctably toward a state of disorder. (Though I have always wondered why that concept never accounts for states of order reemerging. It’s a cycle, really: order, disorder, always circling back around.)

  2. “Does it matter to you?”

    Yes. How it matters has changed over my life. This is good. If what mattered to me when I was half the age I am now mattered to me in the way and with the force it held then, I would be mad. Or madder than I, or any other average human being, already is. For to be human is to be mad.

    Had my dreams come true, would I feel different about my path and the impact, if that is the right word, that I sought to make? There’s no way, of course, for me to know the answer to that.

    It has mattered to me to try to make something, to try to show something, to other people. Something of life — of my life, and the resonance it has had with others’ lives. Something touching on something lasting longer and reaching further than one life.

    All I ever wanted was to be loved. When I got that and it wasn’t enough, I thought that all I ever wanted was to love. When I got that and it still wasn’t enough — what could I think?

    It can be hard to tell the truth. For some, it can be more difficult than it is for others. I don’t know how I measure along that line. When I realized I was an artist because I wanted to be loved, and that every other reason I gave was masking that one reason, that took some of the wind out of my sails.

    This is an immensely vast world in which our consciousness flickers and dances. We can scarcely imagine, in any way, just how big it is. Having said that, what then?

    How do you make it matter? This life — how do you do it, make it matter? We look for meaning to be given us from some other source. But are we not the makers of our meaning? If so, then how, or even why, should we make it?

    I don’t have any better answer to that than to say, because we are here, that’s why. That answer is like the answer the parent gives to the child when the child’s questions of why have become exasperating and the parent says, because — that’s why.

    I’m reminded of the story of the student who went to the master and said, Master, what did you do before enlightenment?, and the master said, Chopped wood and carried water. And the student said, Master, what then did you do after enlightenment?, and the master said, Chopped wood and carried water.

    Does this really address your question — “Does it matter to you?” The simple answer is, yes. But this answer raises the question of, why, then, does it matter to you? Master, why does it matter to you to chop wood and carry water?

    Because without chopped wood and carried water, we would freeze and die of thirst? Those are solid, practical reasons. But why be here at all? Why remain? What drives us to make anything matter? Those drives, are they good? How do we know? Then how do we know about our knowing? How do we measure? How do we know when we have hit on anything that can matter? What are we other than temporary fields of organized energy? Are we some answer to entropy? Does it matter that we are unlikely ever to know — truly know — the answer to that question?

    When I was a young man and followed the study of philosophy, at first I did so because I was looking for answers. What I found is that the questions are the answers. Does it matter to me? It matters enough. When I leave, I don’t believe I will get to return.

    What I try to make matter now is I try to avoid hurting people. Even that seems impossible — my very existence seems to mean that someone else is suffering. But of some things, sometimes, all I can do is let go. That’s hard enough.

    • My youngest son is interested in physics and a nihilist by nature, so when we ask each other questions like these, he usually takes the chopped-wood approach: we do what we do because we’re here, and we have to do something. I have never been able to convey this sense I have of bigger things, that our facility for imagination hints at something spiritual that is also part of being here. He’s unimpressed by intuition, and says imagination is just one of many things our collection of cells is doing for survival of the species — which might not be wrong but still does not feel right.

      I have no answers, obviously. What seems important to me at this point is that I spend my time in service to other people. Easy enough in my professional life, but much harder to find that kind of angle for creative work. All I know is that I don’t want to compete anymore — for contracts, for money, for public approval. I don’t want to be part of the scrum.

      • You have the answer you find sufficient. Almost all of us are lucky enough — or hard-wired such — to have such answers. For many of us, they change over time, these answers, in ways small or great. But we still have some sufficient answer to make it worth it to continue to live.

        We humans have spent, do spend, and will almost certainly continue to spend an immense amount of effort trying to answer a question we rarely understand or even clearly grasp. We ask ourselves, or think we ask ourselves, why such-and-such a thing happens, when what we are really asking is how does such-and-such a thing happen. We find out how any given thing happens, but we still don’t know why, and often don’t even know that we don’t know why and will never know why or that that is even our true question, so we are dissatisfied with the answers we have found and continue our ceaseless search.

        I knew a philosophy professor who said, The most important question is why is there anything instead of nothing?

        A long time ago I worked with a waitress who had been a young girl in eastern Germany when the Russians invaded in 1945. She said, You would be surprised how hard you hold onto life.

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