Saturday, March 31, 2012

Connection in the Chaos

Nihilists point out that our entire planet is utterly insignificant compared to the size of the cosmos, and one human life barely registers to the Earth as a whole.  We're gone in less than the blink of an eye, in geological time.  While we're here, so many people waste their time on petty amusements, pointless drama, watching fake reality shows instead of expanding their minds or exploring their potential.  Artists are driven to create, tearing out pieces of their souls to forge into works which will be seen by few and understood by even fewer.  The disturbing and discomforting are despised, the familiar and nonthreatening enjoy mass popularity.

What, then, is the point of even continuing to exist?  Why not get it over with and jump straight to the inevitable conclusion of every life?  Or if some inner drive prevents us from doing that, why not blur the lines of a pointless reality, dull the crushing weight of life's meaninglessness with whatever intoxicants we can?

A Christian would answer that this life is a gift, given by a powerful and awful Being, willing and capable of inflicting eternal torment if we fail to show appreciation for it.  We must go on living, terrible as it is, to avoid the worse pain of punishment for trying to escape.  We must do as our Creator bids, because we are owned, like toys, with no right to decide our fate.  An atheist would assert that no such Creator exists,  or would deserve worship if it did.

A Buddhist would say life only becomes suffering when we let ourselves become attached to material things, which are all destined to be lost sooner or later.  They say there is a permanence deep inside that we can connect with, if we still our minds and let go of everything outside.  But then why are we even here, in this place of temporary things?  What is the point of offering these distractions, and wouldn't we be better off with all our senses silenced?

A life devoted to science or math leaves a greater impact than most.  Schoolchildren know the names of the great minds whose theories, written centuries before, led to a world where instead of chopping wood and drawing water, we can sit in comfort, connected to the world.   Radio transmissions fan out across the galaxy, saying "We were here," even if there's no one out there to receive the message.  But in the end, scientists die as suddenly and inevitably as anyone else.  They peer into the foundation of the universe, but it cannot save them.

When we are all alone, these seem like ironclad arguments, no loopholes to the misery.  Then out of the blue, sometimes, there's a connection.  Even across the net, with only words and images, we touch each other and are irrevocably changed.  A voice rises above the babble and exposes the absurdity of worrying about the inevitable, or the past.  Against our will, we're swept away by laughter, confronted with the present moment, the only thing that's really real.

The mathematician Paul Erdos said math is like a great book written by the creator of this universe, and solving problems is like glancing at its pages.  Everything in that book is already written and unalterable; we can only discover it, not write new lines.  If we want something truly new, we must find it in other people.

We can't predict the course of any life.  A man might be born with enough intelligence to be a great engineer, the son of an expert in computer science, but choose to devote his life to making people laugh.  Another might be raised in poverty by a single mother and grow up to be a president.

Even those who think they've failed at life, by some arbitrary measure of fame or wealth, may never know how much their unique perspective touched someone else.  Their mind, their voice, their whole personality could be the sun that lights another's life.  They may not see how they enliven everyone around them, but the loss is obvious when they are gone.  Every one of us lives through a unique series of events, creating a point of view that can never be replaced or duplicated.

All these moments will be lost "like tears in rain," of course, but so will everything else in this physical universe.  There's no such thing as permanence, and yet there's no such thing as the future or the past either.  Each moment is the only moment that exists, and that is what makes them precious.  Even if we are facing a bleak future, with seemingly no hope of recapturing some joy of the past, those moments happened, and at the time they were the whole truth.  They belong to the story of the world forever, even after the people who lived them are gone.

The only certainty is that the future will not unfold as expected.  Every moment, events are set in motion with consequences we can't predict.  The complex web of interconnection may lead to a global economic crash, or an innovation that changes everything.  A nuclear reactor may melt down, or a lab may find the cure for cancer.  A beloved is suddenly gone, or a new adventure begins.  We decide how we react to this constant stream of surprises, retreating inward, lashing out in rage, or throwing up our hands and laughing helplessly.  We don't know ourselves what we'll choose, until the moment comes.  Finding out what happens next is what makes existence worthwhile.