Brevity and Belief

Epistemology, that is. How do we know what we know? What is sufficient and necessary to deem a belief “knowledge”. If a belief is just faith, can I have it if I don’t have God?

Then he told me, very tenderly, that it can be dangerous to believe things just because you want them to be true. You can get tricked if you don’t question yourself and others, especially people in a position of authority. He told me that anything that’s truly real can stand up to scrutiny.

— Lessons of Immortality and Mortality From My Father, Carl Sagan,  Sasha Sagan in NYMag.

And later, she concludes (the bold typeface is mine to draw attention to the emphasis in the original, indicated by the em-dashes):

My parents taught me that even though it’s not forever — because it’s not forever — being alive is a profoundly beautiful thing for which each of us should feel deeply grateful. If we lived forever it would not be so amazing.

In the end, I’m not sure I agree that life has meaning because it ends. I’m sure that the poignancy of life, some of its urgency, and much of its random unbelievability come from the inevitability (and often unpredictability) of a single life’s end. But if Life, itself, has meaning, I would think the source of meaning to be something in the life itself, not the fact of its transience. Meaning in life would come from life, not death. The thingliness of life has to be expressed in life’s expression, which death is not.

Also, I think that saying “life has meaning because it must end” is imposing meaning on a purposeless event as much as saying “It’s God’s will” does. It’s placing life within an objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. I’m not sure that human life, on the whole, does, in fact, have a meaning beyond the one it creates for itself. Which meaning is expressed during the life and diminished by the death, even if carried by those who remain.

“Life has meaning because it must end.”

Contract that statement to a purely subjective one: “your life has meaning to me because I will not always have your life as part of mine.” or “my life has meaning because I will lose it.” and it becomes less a leap of faith, less a statement of intrinsic value and more an expression of how we experience life.

That seems more accurate to me than the expansive statement that life itself has meaning because it ends.

The meaning of a life stems from its personal brevity, perhaps, but life itself is not so brief. Life itself may eventually extinguish from the vastness of the universe and the entirety of time, but it the fact of extinction won’t miraculously imbue meaning upon the arc of its creation and destruction.

Winged Skull, creative commons license noncommerical use by Martyn Gorman

Winged Skull, creative commons license noncommerical use by Martyn Gorman

I suspect, in many ways, that accepting death as what gives meaning to our lives comes from a place of security and safety, as well as expected longevity. All life is amazing, and we are all lucky to have one, but only those of us lucky enough to have a safe and secure one–people for whom death is most likely to result from having lived a very long time or, if we are unfortunate, from a dreadful illness or sudden accident–think death is what gives our lives value.

We take for granted that our premature infants will survive; that the flu won’t kill us; that we’ll be rescued from fires, floods and tornadoes; that there is a cure for that. When there isn’t, we try to make the exception valid by giving it a grand purpose as the source of all meaning in life.

My life has meaning–if it has meaning–because of how I use it. So does yours. Perhaps the way you live your life will lead to sorrow and mourning when you die. If sorrow and mourning is a measure of goodness in the life of the deceased, then I hope you are good enough in life to be missed. I will still measure the value of your life by how it was lived, not the lamentations at your passing.

You should do the same because you won’t be able to use the yardstick of mourning to evaluate yourself and find meaning in the days you have.

I don’t do much thinking about life and death, nor much about meaning beyond trying to preserve and promote what I find valuable and good. I try more to examine why I consider things valuable or good. The reasons why we make the choices we make, and the effectiveness of our priorities, seems a more productive inquiry than whether life would be beautiful if it weren’t brief.


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