Can you can remember the first names of all eight of your great grandparents? I definitely can’t. Our great grandparents passed away within the last hundred years, some of them within our own lifetimes, and yet we can’t remember their names. Just over a hundred billion people have lived and died on this planet since homosapiens evolved. How many of them are still regularly spoken of today? A few hundred, a thousand at a stretch? A mere drop in the ocean.
In all likelihood within one hundred years no one will remember your name or your life. It is a sobering thought. If you are anything like me you are probably squirming in your seat right now trying to push that frightening thought out of your mind. Why is that?
We like to think we will live forever - if not in the flesh, then in the minds and hearts of those left behind. Throughout the centuries men and women have devised crafty ways of leaving their mark. From Neolithic cave paintings of human hands to Roman graffiti on ancient brothel walls, Greek monuments erected by rich benefactors, the conquering of continents by ambitious tyrants, reality television, and right down to the basic act of procreation - we all want to live forever or at least be remembered. But the painful truth is that even the lucky few who manage to write their names in history’s pages will all eventually be forgotten. Trying to be remembered is a fools’ errand.
I believe the question we should be asking ourselves is not ‘how can I leave my mark’, but rather, ‘how can I make peace with my insignificance’? Religions offer the balm of the ever-after. You don’t need to try to live on in the form of a legacy if you can live forever in heaven. But what of the non-believers? What solace can we find?
I believe there are two options open to us. The first is to strive for something entirely different – not the preservation and remembrance of our self but the preservation and betterment of our species. We can strive to leave the human race in a better state than it was when we arrived here.
The second option is to take comfort from our ultimate insignificance and use this as a source of strength. All our fears, guilt, shame and disappointments become much less daunting when we realise our impotence – they just don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. We don’t matter, and that can be a blessing if we wish.
I vividly recall the first time I realised the extent of my own insignificance. I was in my mid-twenties and on that particular night I was weighed down with a hefty dose of existential angst, guilt, and anxiety. My relationship was in freefall, I was unemployed, I had given up on my dream of being a successful musician and I had no idea what I was going to do next. So I did the only thing I could think to do – I went for a long walk on the beach. It was a clear night and there was no light aside from that cast by the full moon rising over the breakers. There was a warm wind blowing onshore. I looked up at the countless stars dotting the sky in blues, reds, oranges and yellows and then back down at the expanse of sand stretching out in front of me made up of billions of tiny grains of silicon. I felt the cold water pull at my legs comprised of trillions of molecules being pushed and pulled across the planet by the moon rising over my head. Suddenly I found myself smiling and then laughing so hard I had tears pouring down my face. I was just like the sand, water and stars – a tiny part of a vast expansive whole too large to fathom. I still didn’t know what to do with my life but suddenly that didn’t really matter. I felt the weight of the world slip off my shoulders. To be alive and part of the dance was enough. I was so moved by the experience that I wrote a song which you can listen to here.
To return to the two options I spoke of before, I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. I think it is important to seek to make the world a better place, all the while bearing in mind that it is ultimately a futile exercise. And here’s why: because everyone alive today and all those yet to come deserve to live lives full of as much joy, happiness, wonder, health and peace as possible and it is our individual and collective responsibility to ensure this happens. But when it all gets too heavy as it surely will and we feel like Atlas with the world on our shoulders it is helpful to remember that in the end, as Freddy Mercury said, nothing really matters.