Last night, I walked outside briefly to see if it was still raining. It had been raining most of the day and, because for that instant it seemed important to me to know if it was still raining or not, I went outside. I was surprised when I looked up and saw a dark, transparent sky filled with stars. The rain had moved on and there was not a cloud in the night sky.
As I looked up at that dazzling array – an array I’ve seen thousands of times in my life – it occurred to me how insignificant everything in life really is. If we’re lucky we might live 85 years. If we’re skilled or talented or lucky we may leave behind something of value – books we’ve written, songs we’ve composed, a vast empire of wealth. We may leave behind something by which the world will remember us. But most of us are not particularly skilled or talented or lucky or wealthy and what we leave behind will be starkly insignificant. Most of us will leave behind a few fading memories stored in the minds of the people who really knew us. There may be photographs or videos of us as we appeared in life, we will be forever frozen in those moments. Those of us who survive us can look at the way we were. But they will not see us, they will see their impression of us, frozen in time, isolated and existing only as floating digital bits stored on some storage medium.
The sky I gazed into last night is billions of years old. Yet I don’t see it either. I see it only the way it was – a few minutes ago, a few hours ago, a few years ago, a million years ago, even a billion years ago. The light from some of those stars is millions or billions of years old – so it is then I cannot even know the stars that I see.
Today I looked at some old sepia-tone pictures of some early settlers of the American West. They were frozen in time, frozen in a moment. The men in beards and ties and cowboy hats and the women in frilly hooped dresses. No doubt they were dressed in the style of their time. My impression of them is all I saw – an impression flavored and season by the era in which I live. I can never know them. I will never know who these people were that once lived upon this Earth and were significant to only the very few who knew them. I wonder what they left behind besides memories in the minds of those who cared for them.
As much as it’s hard to separate myself from the complexities, struggles, pains, yearnings and responsibilities of living every day, sometimes I can and when I do the obvious seems absurd. All our struggles, all our joys, all our sorrows, all our pain, all our pleasures, all our accomplishments, all are insignificant.
Most of us strive to be happy. We try to avoid pain and sorrow, even though we know we can’t avoid them completely. We try to enjoy our time and we try to find someone who completes us and spend our lives with the person we love. Yet there’s an irony that is startling hidden there. The more we are enjoying ourselves the faster time passes. By finding pleasurable things to do we shorten our perception of the time as it passes. Days spent doing things we love to do or finally doing the things we have always wanted to do, only cause the clock to tick faster. Yet the alternative is repulsive. I don’t want to spend my life holed up in a darkened room with nothing to do so that time passes more slowly. Everyone can relate to how slowly time passes when we’re bored, lonely, sick or sorrowful. And there are not many of us who don’t hope for a long and happy life. If you have a happy life, it won’t be long, it will pass far too quickly. You may well live to be 85, but it won’t seem like 85 years have gone by as you prepare to take your final breath. Life will have seemed to have passed in the blink of an eye
Everything is relative. We all like to think our lives are significant. That we contribute something to the world in which we live. If we have children then we make ourselves significant at least to them. But compared to the vastness of the universe and the universal scale of space and time, we are no more significant that a mote of dust carried haphazardly on a summer wind.
There are some who seemed to lived charmed lives – we think them lucky or blessed. And some of us think our lives are jinxed – that nothing ever goes our way. We think life isn’t fair. But why we do this is because we compare ourselves to the IMPRESSIONS we have of others. We cannot know the others to which we compare ourselves – we can only know the impression we have of them. These impressions are, of course, nothing but specters – ghosts and illusions sparking along in the cells of our brains. What we see is rarely what is. Much like the light from the stars that shone down on me last night, it is only an illusion. I didn’t see the stars as they were last night, I saw the light from the stars as they were a million or a billion years ago. It was just an illusion, I wasn’t really seeing the stars at all.
We cannot base our lives on anything real except ourselves and this – the present moment. Yesterday is gone and it exists only as an impression – and illusion. Tomorrow is a concept, and an illusion all the same. And most of us know this without thinking yet we cling to illusions and impressions, we build our lives around specters and ghosts and probabilities – gamblers all in the casino of life. And we all know the casino is going to win. We just don’t know when we’re going to run out of chips.
Most of us don’t want to die, some of us even fear death. But each night when we lie down to sleep, we practice for death. Some nights we’re tired and eager for sleep – we look forward to the sublime nothingness that awaits us in sleep. But how many of us would want to lie down if we knew we’d never wake up?
Everything is relative. Not one person is more significant than another but our own illusions and impressions make it so. We find some people attractive and some not attractive yet under less than one-quarter inch of skin we all look essentially the same – a composite of vessels and muscles and fat.
We die because we are born – yet we celebrate birth and mourn death. They are essentially the same. On the scale of the universal, our lives are no more significant that a grain of sand on the beach of some remote and deserted island. There is no significance expect the significance of impression and illusion. Under the surface of our skin we all look essentially the same. And ten thousand years from now we’ll all look exactly the same and we’ll all be thinking the same nothing.
Life is neither fair nor unfair. Life may well be as perennial as the grass and yet be as meaningless as swirling dust trailing a racing comet. Life may be as pervasive as the space-time in which it exists and yet be as empty as the nothingness the spans the distances between the stars.
Our limited perceptions and our narrow periphery restrict our knowledge of life to that which we perceive –that which think we see and that which we experience. Fundamentally our lives are little more than the illusions and impressions compiled by the neurons and synapses firing in our brains. It is as if our brains are movie directors creating movies from its warehouse of perceived sights and experiences. Since we can never see what is really there, and we see only the shadows and reflections of reality, we can, to a degree, control the content of the movies our brains produce. Our lives are based largely on illusions and impressions of the world we think we see.
You and I create our worlds by weaving together our illusions and impressions, and nothing is ever what it appears to be. No matter how long you live, it will either be too long or not long enough. Your perception of time depends on the illusions and impressions you choose to fill it with — and just as much on how much you believe in them.
So as much as you can, make your illusions grand and your impressions beautiful. There is enough ugliness, deceit and sorrow in this sad world already.
In the end, nothing matters anyway. We’re all just here passing time.
And everything is relative to that.