Sunday, July 29, 2012

Significance

Recently The Oatmeal published a comic titled "How to suck at your religion".  While it ruffled a lot of religious feathers I thought it was incredible, funny and a worthwhile, thought provoking read no matter what your theistic beliefs are.

The Slacktivist liked it but had one serious quibble with the comic:

"It’s funny. It’s also thoughtful, provocatively irreverent and wise. Until near the end, where it stumbles badly.

Here’s the bit that goes wobbly:

    Does your religion inspire you to help people? Does it make you happier? Does it help you cope with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space and that someday you will die and you are completely powerless, helpless, and insignificant in the wake of this beautiful cosmic shitstorm we call existence? Does it help with that? Yes? Excellent! Carry on …

The problem is that third question — the long one, which makes three assertions. The first two are fine. The last one is partly fine, but contains one word which is really, really, really not at all fine.

That word is “insignificant.” And that’s just utterly wrong.

You are not “completely insignificant.” You are, in fact, precisely the opposite of that."

I'm not sure if I agree with that.  I get that we would all like to think we are significant, but are we?  Really?  How can tiny, fragile, short lived, imperfect people like us ever hope to be significant in such a vast, ancient universe?  But fine, mostly when people talk about significance they don't mean "significant to the universe" they mean "significant to each other".  But just how significant are we to one another?

Imagine that you died.

Everyone who knew you is devastated because they loved you and valued your presence in their lives.  The moons of Mars may not care but to them you were significant and they do care.  In the depths of their grief they soon notice something terrible.  Even though it feels like the world just stopped, it didn't.  Everything and everyone is carrying on exactly as before without an ounce of deference for the pain they feel.  People still eat, drink, go to work and have banal conversations about banal things.  Dogs bark, cars honk and shitty sitcoms keep spewing out canned laughter like nothing's happened.  Even the people closest to them will acknowledge their grief, nod, look serious and offer condolences or empty consolation that is anything but and then they just resume life as usual.  They will walk away and have a snack and make stupid jokes about stupid things and then other people will laugh politely even though it wasn't even funny.

After a while, even those people will start looking at them strangely.  Why are you still sad?  Why are you not resuming life as usual?  Why is your grieving not over yet?  See your death, terrible as it was, is supposed to be something people just get over.  People understand sadness and grieving, but only so much.  People are supposed to move on.  And they do.

At first it will take some effort.  They will have to get up, stare at themselves hard in the mirror and will themselves to not seem sad.  But after a while it won't be so hard anymore.  The banalities of life will suck them right back in with everyone else and after a while they will only think of you when they are reminded of you.

The worst part?  After a while even that will be hard for them.  Time will pass and those who loved you the most will realise that they have trouble picturing your face, that they can't remember exactly what your voice sounded like.  They will still remember things about you, memories with you in them but not like before.  In the end you become something more like a character in a book or on an old TV show.  Someone who is sort of remembered, mostly fondly, once in a distant while.  Or maybe you'll get lucky and someone who loved you will desperately cling to your memory.  The problem with memories though is that they are moments trapped in amber, they're not you.  That time you were silly or crazy or angry or passionate about something were parts of you but they weren't all of you.  To just remember that part of you is to make you into something you never were.

And so it goes.  Your descendants - should you be lucky enough to have them - will have no memory of you at all apart from a name they heard and a picture in a frame.  They will spend more time thinking about the bowel movements of exotic monkeys than they spend remembering you.  Everything will be as it always was after you go.

Are we significant? 

I don't know.

3 comments:

Ali said...

I suppose the question is what it means to be significant - in a cosmic sense, no, I guess we're not. But I think that only intensifies the other ways we can be significant. When we're not caught up in some greater plan for our lives, and how the whole of history was planned with us in mind, we can focus more on the ways we can be significant. All we can do is make an impact where we are. We're only accountable to ourselves and the other inhabitants of the planet. I like that. It's not that we're not significant - it's just looking at it through different lenses.

Caitlin Hutchison said...

I agree with you that we are significant to the ones around us but in general - No we're not. I have secretly always loved this idea! It gives me a sense of freedom! No matter how badly you f-up you still don't really affect anything. Not in the long run. But at the same time every little thing you do or say changed the universe in some way - is it a significant way? Probabaly not. (Hope you don't mind - I 'piggy backed in via Ali's blog' :))

Eugene said...

Hi Caitlin! Piggy backers are always welcome here!

I agree with you both, our only significance is found in our interactions with each other. And that's a great point by the way (made by both of you) that the fact that we aren't cosmically significant is freeing! That's so true! Having a grand plan or preordained destiny sounds very heroic and awesome but if you're waiting around for Gandalf or Hagrid to come around and finally start your story of significance you're just going to waste your life. Doing the best you can with what you have may not seem like much but it's perhaps as much significance as we can hope for.

And that's not a bad thing. Besides, one rarely realizes whether something had real significance when you're busy doing it. That sort of realization tends to come much later.

Yet... I am still debating whether it's worth considering such things significant. Taking out my tonsils may have seemed very significant when I was 6 since it was my first surgery and it was painful and I got icecream for a week! But I haven't even thought of that for decades now. Losing my thyroid on the other hand turned out to be extremely significant, not a day goes by where I don't have to think about it and that is never going to change. Are there people like that? Events like that? Possibly...