Updated: Apr 28, 2020
There are many reasons in todays world why people struggle with sleeping. It could be work stress; it could be too much caffeine; it's probably endless scrolling through Instagram; but, it could also be that the noises coming from the person next to you sound something like a blender … lodged in a car engine … going through a trash compactor. What I do know is that, for me, what kept me up at night was one simple question: "what is the point?"
Seriously, what is the point? I implore you to tell me. I have spent hours and hours lying in my bed at night, staring up at the ceiling, and I honestly can say I am no closer to figuring it out.
Why have I been so fixated? My issue was that I was interminably caught up in the big picture. As has been a plague on human consciousness for as long as humans have turned breath into words, I could not get my mind past death.
No, not my death. I'm not terribly looking forward to that, but the kind of death I am talking about is more permanent. I couldn't get my mind past the ineludible, inexorable fading away of everything that we as humanity have come to build.
William Shakespeare once wrote,
"Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown’d,
Crooked elipses ’gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty’s brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature’s truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow:
And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand."
In essence, Shakespeare is proclaiming that time can conquer all; tall prideful spring flowers will wilt, beautiful golden locks of hair will grey, and desert sands will one day wear away the greatest of pyramids. All that will remain is our written testament to the beauty that once stood.
The tragedy therein, is that he is wrong. Ink fades. Moreover, there will come a time when there is no one left to read even Shakespeare's most famous words. Not only is it almost a certainty that humanity will one day cease to exist, even if we were to survive the inevitable expansion of the very sun that gives us life and persist for an interminable number of years, what will have been the point of one man's words in the face of such infinitum.
Oblivion. It comes from the French oublier, meaning to forget. All of the work we will do to build a better, more just, more beautiful world will one day be forgotten, as will that world we built.
Let us presume for a second that there is nothing awaiting us after death, that oblivion is all there is, that one day we will meet oblivion, and so too will our children and our children's children who might otherwise pass down our stories, that there is no afterlife or cosmic judgement awaiting us.
So I ask again, what is the point of doing good in the face of a universe that is ultimately indifferent to every individual being's existence? Why not just be selfish? If we cannot make a difference, why do we not just try to make life as pleasurable for ourselves as possible in the short time we have, at the expense of those who impact us very little?
I am not going to purport to tell you the purpose of life. One, I do not know. Two, if I had to posit a guess, I imagine the answer lies somewhere in the subjective pursuit of attempting to find that meaning for yourself, and thus I could never tell you.
What I will tell you is this, or at least what I will argue is such: it does not matter. It does not matter if there is a grand scale purpose to the good that you do in this world. It does not matter if it is purposeless.
Here is why.
One day, a boy arose at the first crack of dawn to watch the sun rise over the ocean. Barefoot he wandered over the dunes, a camera in hand, to capture what his mother described to him as the most beautiful sight in the world. Endless sea meets endless sky, and for a moment explodes into color like firecrackers welcoming a new day.
His heart swelled with joy as he crested the top of the dune, rising in harmony with the first row of waves… only to crash. His heart sunk into his stomach. The first light of day illuminated a beach with millions and millions of starfish washed ashore. Both directions, as far as the eye could see, endless beings all gasping for a breath that only the water could grant them.
Frantically, the boy fell to his knees and started to scoop up starfish, throwing them as far into the sea as the strength in his small arms would allow. Again and again, he picked up a starfish and returned it to its place of sanctuary. Again and again, he continued for as long as his arms would allow him.
After some time, an old man exited his front door and sat upon the porch of the beach house where he lived. As he sat sipping his coffee, his eyes panned up and became fixed on the boy. For close to an hour he watched the boy attempt to return the immense sea of starfish, one drop at a time, to the ocean. He watched perplexed as despite working for an hour, the boy had made barely a dent.
Eventually the man's curiosity got the better of him. He returned inside, took some bread from his basket, and walked out towards the beach with the loaf under his harm. Upon reaching the boy as quickly as his old knees would carry him, he called out,
"Young man, what is it you are doing? Come rest your arms, have some bread. Don't you see that this is futile? There are millions of starfish out here that will dry out as soon as the sun finishes its rise. You are exhausting yourself and yet it will make no difference."
Having hardly stopped to think about what he was doing, the boy paused. After some time, he looked up towards the man's concerned gaze. Then, he looked back down at the starfish in his hand. With one big heave, the boy launched the starfish deep behind the cresting waves.
"I sure made a difference to that one."
And so the old man and boy spent the rest of the morning throwing starfish into the sea.
(the above story is adapted from Lauren Eiseley's, "The Star Thrower")
Do our actions in life have some sort of greater cosmic meaning? I honestly could not tell you. But... our actions are meaningful to the lives they touch.
On the days when you feel like your existence is meaningless, on the days when you feel like everything you do to make the world just a little bit brighter will go unnoticed, on the days when you are afraid of the oblivion that awaits us all, I implore you to think of the day you find oblivion on your doorstep.
When you lie on your deathbed thinking back upon the life that you led, you may have regrets. You may have spent too little time with your family and too much time at the office. You may never have said that one thing you needed to say, or shut the door on something that had been calling for your unique perspective. But… but,
The one thing you will never regret is altruism.
To bring a smile to one person's face may not have wavered the unyielding hand of oblivion, but it sure made a difference to them.
About the Author
Gregory Light is a bartender, a traveler, a cook, a guitar player, a blackbelt, a French speaker, a cliff diver, a part-time theoretical physicist, a philosopher, a dog owner, a Star Wars lover, and probably some other things too. Notably, no one has ever seen Gregory and Batman in the same room…
He loves to rock climb, hike, and explore new trails. Most of all he loves learning more about the world by getting to know strangers as friends.