There are only two sureties in life: that we have been born and that we will die. The rest, at least from a finite human perspective, is variable.
No True Answers, No Answerable Truths
Contemplating the mystery of our birth—why was I born?—is likely to cause a certain degree of anxiety, at least for those of us who judge ourselves to be in mundane circumstances: my family is not wealthy; I am not wealthy; I am not famous; my job is not glamorous; my children are unimpressive; my spouse is boring; I am not exceptionally beautiful or witty or gifted; and, though I secretly tell myself I’m smarter than most people, I just as often fear that I am not. Erase me completely and there will be someone very much like me to take my place. Why, then, do I exist? The world is quick to provide temporary relief and sell us an answer to this unanswerable question. If we’re honest with ourselves, maybe after purchasing a few bottles of snake oil (and who can blame us for that), we will eventually come to the conclusion that if we can’t know about the reason for our own lives, no one can.
Death is a similar mystery with no good answers or reasons. We know what happens biologically after the cessation of life, insofar as we are able to agree on what actually constitutes life. But we do not know whether mind is coterminous with brain. If it isn’t, then where does the mind go after the body rots? If it is, then human consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter and is therefore unlike any other thing (event? concept? process? ghost? singularity?) in the known universe—another unfathomable mystery. As Marcus Aurelius says: “Providence or atoms” (Meditations, IV.3). Life comes down to one or the other, even if we can’t know what either truly is.
Only We Care About What Our Lives May Mean
Even before we’re naught but dust, we will watch ourselves vanish by inches. Consider that in a few years, society will tell us that our significance has already passed. We won’t be dead yet, but we will still be told that it is time to retire and make way for those who are younger and therefore more socially relevant. Our worth will be judged according to what we have earned for ourselves in 20-30 years of active adult life. And such judgment will be based on the social values of the moment—ideas presently in fashion, not even, necessarily, what we were thinking about when we started the company, wrote the book, or climbed the mountain.
We will still be asking, Why, then, do I exist? And, as we reach retirement age, we may find others asking us that, too. Moreover, we may complain about the stereotypical characteristics of the Millennials, but every generation (like every individual) judges the world according to its own perspective and values. We, in Generation X, also judged the Baby Boomers. And they cruelly judged us as well as the Lost Generation, etc. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, and we change with them. And so goes the world.
But in spite of our all-encompassing solipsism, we will still have regrets. We will either have worked very hard in practical ways to do what was expected of us (and feel that we never fully addressed our inner potential) or we will have pursued some path of inner realization (and feel that we never got to experience conventional kinds of success and recognition). This may be an oversimplification, but the principle is sound. We will eventually realize, on some level, that we cannot have it all because we are going to die and our time is limited. This may make us cry because we can’t stop asking why we had to go through all this anguish and absurdity just to wind up in the ground. Or it may make us free because the inevitability of death puts all the anguish and absurdity into perspective.
Freedom From the Burden of Meaning
There may be some value when we contemplate life in terms of death. Embracing the inevitability of death can free us from what we may feel is a mundane and meaningless existence. Someday soon (especially if we consider the relative shortness of life), we will all be dead. All the people we know will be dead. All the things we cared about will have changed, some far beyond what we could have imagined. And those who follow will not think about us much. How often do you think about your great-grandparents? Your grandparents? Your great uncles and aunts? They are not a relevant or functional part of your day to day existence, even if you do have some way to regularly honor them.
At best, the people living after us will have certain ideas of who we were, since it is impossible to convey the dimensionality of a human life. If we are lucky, we will be summarized in terms of our professional achievements and historically significant actions (if any). Our images may be preserved in photos or videos, but those images won’t be us, either. People will never know who we really were inside, what we truly thought, how we truly felt. In every way that counts, we will be gone, questions silenced, problems solved, story told. We will be free.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
“Ozymandias,” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose (1977)