You – a guide to your weird, incredible cosmic existence
Right now, you’re strapped to a bit of dust called Earth by an unexplained force called gravity in an incomprehensibly large absence of matter called space, orbiting at extraordinary speeds around a massive ball of plasma called the Sun in a period of relative cosmological calm, and at a convenient distance and temperature that support a weird little magic mindfuck called life.
Yet this cheeky little phenomenon, while often lovely and interesting, has been confusing our tiny little brains ever since it invented them for us. There are concepts so baffling to us that when we try to imagine them, our minds almost literally recoil in defence like there’s an inbuilt shut-off valve to protect us from the full horror or wonder of understanding them.
And infinity. How can space and time not have boundaries? How can anything go on forever? If infinity does not have a start or an end, and it doesn’t, apparently, then, you know… what?
Then there’s life itself. Is it just here or absolutely everywhere? How did it start and what happens when it ends? If we are ‘alive’ but we are just made up of loads of stuff that is not ‘alive,’ then, you know… WHAT?
You get my point.
Take you, for example, the sitting, reading trophy of four billion years of evolution. You’re interesting. At one point you were the youngest person on Earth, remember? You’re amongst the most complex creatures to have ever lived on this planet, maybe anywhere in the cosmos, and you exist now at the end of an unbroken chain of successful reproduction, adaptation and genetic transfer that stretches all the way back through time to the very first interactions of boring, inanimate molecules that sparked the beginnings of life. Or to put it a cooler way, none of your ancestors were barren or sterile or failed at getting laid, even before they had genitals, and even before they had to have sex with themselves to get things done. If you don’t have any children, you’ll finally be ending a continuous pattern of humping and DNA transfer that’s been going on since your ancestors were about five-thousandths of a millimetre in length. If you think that puts pressure on you to try and get some sperm or other into a warm place with good career prospects, then consider the alternative: if you don’t reproduce, you’re at the end of that chain; the zenith; the apex; the pinnacle of a single billions-of-years old evolutionary strand. Every single event and atomic encounter since the beginning of time led exactly to you. Here. Now.
This very instant, my special little sausage, you are floating somehow, somewhere in a part of the liquid phenomenon of Time we call the Present, both the oldest you have ever been, and the youngest you will ever be again.
Despite this, everything you see and hear and experience happened in the past, even though you, now, again, comma, have never been in it. The sunlight that warms your mayonnaise at a picnic is seven minutes old, a bullet could already be in your pelvis by the time you’ve heard a gunshot, and this sentence will take entire nanoseconds to reach the middle of your brainbox, even longer if you’re reading it underwater or reflected off the highly polished skin of a dolphin. The ‘present,’ ultimately, is a figment of your imagination, a deceptive trick of the senses, a concept that we claim to live in but are more realistically ever chasing after like a fat kid, bumbling and wheezing half way up a staircase, trying to figure out what just happened, what’s going on, and, oh for bum’s sake, now fucking what?
Meanwhile, the whole time we’re ignorantly faffing around in socks and jobs, we’ve also got no idea if we’re even in control of ourselves, our thoughts or our actions — not that it matters who wrote the movie, as long as you’re enjoying it– and we’re inconveniently hurtling without brakes towards a cliff edge of uncertainty.
It’s not like you could be expected to figure out these brain-bungling conundrums, though, being as ill-equipped for philosophical computing as you are. After all, you’re just a sort of colourful, thinking soup in a human-shaped bag; a pulpy, watery mass made of blobby, smelly things and meat that is constantly renewing, refreshing and replacing itself. The thing you eat today will be part of the brain tomorrow that recognises what that thing is, so no wonder it’s asking a lot to figure out if it has Free Will or not. That quite unintelligent looking sandwich in your flabby lap, for instance, could tomorrow be doing complicated maths, or solving an intricate moral dilemma involving a duck, or even remembering your first kiss. And when it does remember that first kiss, incidentally, it will trick you again into believing that you were there.
Except you weren’t.
Not a single atom in your body now was there then. Every bit of you has since been replaced many times over. Whatever ‘you’ are, therefore, is not what you’re made of, but is somehow, and not-simply, contained in the gooey, temporary arrangement of what you’ve eaten. To put it more delicately, you have a hole that runs through your body, practically uninterrupted from your mouth to your arse, and its job is to disrupt the flow of matter from one place to another in the Universe and momentarily assemble it in to a recipe called You. You’re a glorified food tube; a squishy-squashy tunnel that supports your head; an egg-type structure that contains your brain; a grey, shaved hedgehog thing that worries and gets addicted to cigarettes. You, or your idea of whatever you are, is just electrical signals bouncing around somewhere inside a spongy slab of meat with a structure that is constantly changing, adapting, and making new connections between its neurones… it will be literally, physically different after you read this sentence. And this one as well, strangely enough, even though this one doesn’t have a sensible potato spaceship.
In fact, your body, the only thing you can ever really claim to own (though it’s more like a loan from some elusive magic bank that can snatch it back at the slightest tickle of a pickle), came from something you or your mother once consumed, its signature now deep in your bones. More than that, everything you are came from the Earth and will one day go back to it.
And more than that, everything you are is currently at the furthest point it has ever journeyed from the very beginnings of the Universe and its origins in the nuclear furnaces of emerging stars. The atoms that make up your left eyelashes come from different stars than the ones in your right, and their brother and sister particles are scattered all across the cosmos up to god knows what outside the blinking bonanza of your face. You’re made of the same basic building blocks of matter –matter which is almost entirely space, incidentally– as everyone and everything that there is. While I’m sure you can do something bafflingly impressive like hop to music, you are just hydrogen that was left alone with nothing to do for long enough that it got smug and started thinking about itself. Before you knew it, that same hydrogen was you, reading slightly jarring one-line paragraphs on the Internet.
We are all one thing.
While that might sound like the kind of pretentious, wanky nonsense you’d avoid all day from any fucker in a tie-dye wigwam that grows their own lentils, it is still literally, weirdly, and unarguably true. We’re all related in every single conceivable way possible, and the level of separation between us exists only in our minds. Stretching out from your family, you are related to every other human, every other animal, every other life-form on this planet, and subsequently the very Universe itself as everything ‘living’ is made up of stuff that is called ‘nonliving.’ A tree is natural. A wave is natural. And you too are an expression of natural laws.
Boring, simple life happened, somehow, in the new hot soup of Earth, then life beget life, beget life, beget life, like a continuous Olympic torch of biology, burning inevitably through the ages towards you because it was never quite put out by the comets or diseases or volcanoes or wars that tried.
(While this might sound initially miraculous, of course it isn’t. It’s just that we sometimes think about time from the past-forwards, and not now-backwards: in other words, if it hadn’t happened exactly the way that it did happen, we wouldn’t be here to look back at it and think that it sounds miraculous. It’s the Goldilocks Principle in action: the universe is not “just right,” so the Tree of Life could be here; The Tree of Life is here, so the universe must be “just right”…)
Biologically, chemically, and physically you are, like every other lump of life that is mucking about here, part of the same single eternal organism – a complex, self-regulating, planet-clinging life system (sometimes referred to as ‘Gaia‘). Just as the innumerable bacteria in your stomach and microbes on your skin are part of the wider ecosystem of your body, so your body is part of the wider ecosystem around it. While you could certainly get the impression that you’re some kind of unique, special individual, especially when someone compliments you on that wacky cutlery you bought from Ikea, more realistically you are a tiny, dispensable constituent of something entirely bigger: a walking, wobbling nutrient and gas conversion bit in a massive, alive and complex engine called Earth.
Indeed, with enough scale, the entire sprawling presence of humanity and life on the surface of our planet wouldn’t look unlike mould on a floating, blue Orange – or Bluorange, if you will – in space. As our species multiplies at exponential speeds in every available direction, spreads into every liveable nook and planetary cranny, and rapidly converts everything green and available into more smoke, dust and grey matter than you’d find in Margaret Thatcher’s horrible bones, it’s probably far safer to assume we’re more likely a fleeting, arrogant space virus than some amazing fallen race cast in the image of a divine creator.
If you don’t like the idea that the average, hilariously self-important human is no more individual than a single spore of something growing on an unattended armpit, or if you’re not quite ready to be the boring guest in the garden explaining how “we are all, like, interconnected, man,” then you might still enjoy the more digestible, placebo fact that the average human is a 28-year old Chinese man. Isn’t that fun? If this average fact doesn’t get a polite, interested nod from the dullard opposite you who actually thought it was fine to bring hummus to a barbeque, then you could try the more cryptic, esoteric observation that the average human, perhaps, is a dead one. A hundred billion of our human ancestors, it is speculated, have been and gone, along with 99.99% of all the species to have ever existed on Earth that slept quietly into extinction. (Which, on a side note, is why it’s so irritating when someone tries a bit too hard to save a panda.)
And you too, of course, will die.
While your birth may have been an almost unfathomably unlikely statistical improbability, your impending death is an absolute certainty. Indeed, one day this year is the looming pre-anniversary of your death. The same day every year, of course, until your timeline is intersected by a particularly sharp object or a heart attack. You probably won’t enjoy it, either, but hey, it will be quick and you won’t remember it. You literally won’t know you’ve stopped living, incidentally, so unless you’re the kind of person who soils their bedclothes every night before you go to sleep, it is nothing to be afraid of. Really. It’s not you that will ‘die,’ after all, it’s the world that will end. ‘Reality,’ the dream-like story that your brain assembles for you from a million strange electrical signals and sensory ingredients, will fade to end credits and be over.
The Story of You will be finished.
Then what, though, you might ask?
Well, while we don’t have the right answers to probably the wrong questions we’ve been asking for millennia, we do know exactly what happens when you die. Just like all the matter and energy that comprises you was something else before, so it will be something else again. Matter and energy can’t be destroyed, only transferred, so you’ll just begin the next phase of your fluctuant cloud-like existence. Maybe you’ll be buried or burnt, or wedged into a gap to support a table.
Maybe your body will gradually break down into its constituent parts and go straight back to work as a mushroom, or an ant, or a bit of stick. Maybe you’ll be eaten by something large and toothy in the morning, sunbathe as shit in the afternoon, then help some nice grass begin its happy little poo-born life in the evening.
You will die, and everything you are, and have ever been, will just become something else.
It’s the ciiiiiiiiircle of Lion King, etc.
However, while it might sound a little more bleak to you because you are not a talking fictional cartoon lion (probably) it could also be argued that you’re already dead, basically. You weren’t alive for billions and billions of years before you were born and you won’t be alive for billions and billions of years after you die, so life, really, is just a temporary phase – perhaps even an illusion or simulation, if some theoretical physicists are right – in between. You’re a passing, interesting arrangement of matter in a massive, shifting equation of energy; a confused, momentary mist of material and purpose in an infinite environment without one. Your human life is less than a blink in the cosmic time span, but you didn’t experience the beginning of it, and you wont experience the end of it, so subjectively it will be infinite.
You don’t need an afterlife. To your brain, the meatball architect of whatever you experience, you have always been here, and you always will be.
Regardless, assuming we don’t invent immortality milkshakes this week, in about one hundred and twenty years not a single person alive today will remain. The Earth will have an entirely new set of humans, which at the very least means none of them will be Donald Fucking Trump, and it’ll be like a big global party where you don’t know any one, nobody knows you, you’re not invited, no one’s invited, you’re dead, and there’s no booze.
Our generation’s names, only, will be peppered thinly in memoirs and memories; most of us forgotten, some of us footnotes, and a spare few celebrated by history if we’re on the lucky side that writes it. Most of us will not be remembered a generation after we die… all of us will not be remembered eventually. The legacy of world-changing Genghis Khan of Mongolia and company policy-changing Sally the Human Resources Manager of NatWest’s Swindon Branch will taper towards the same equilibrium as every other life form to exist now or ever, here or anywhere.
On top of that, nearly seven billion people walk the Earth today with the Internet and a buffet of past gods, religions and philosophies to nibble at, and we’ve still not got a whiff of a clue what-how-why-when-or-who did the shit, even though our noses are moving nearer and nearer to the fart every day.
Everyone that says they do know what happens when you die should be avoided like a shoe full of egg, obviously, and we should also be careful believing ourselves too often. Most of the things we think we know about anything, after all, were learned through billions of other people like us, processed and filtered through the collective mind of humanity and history, whittled down to an expressible language-limited essence, twisted to self-interest and delivered to us in a manageable chunk; something we plucked quickly from a conveyor-belt as it glided past us towards incorrectness or irrelevance.
In short, we know almost nothing about anything, and we’re probably the smartest stuff going on for at least 24 trillion miles in every direction. Furthermore, we’ll probably never understand the fundamental paradoxes of life, death, space, time, or reality… especially on our current, misguided oil-guns-and-money species trajectory. Our existence is meaningless in an objective sense, but only because what we conventionally understand about “meaning” is meaningless.
However, from this apparent crisis in significance and purpose and moral abandon, emerges a fun and therapeutic opportunity: You can do anything you want. You can create your own meaning. You don’t have to follow other people’s rules, or directions, or social structures. You don’t have to do what you’re told, or feel guilty about the opposite. You can make up your own rules, your own meaning, your own purpose. Best of all, you can’t go wrong unless you go wrong by yourself. Nothing matters unless it matters to you.
On a warm and starry night you can look up at the sky with no roof between your wonderful human head and the astonishing scope of the infinite beyond it, part of both the nothing and everything you perceive, and choose to do with the tiny, little life that you’ve been gifted whatever you think is right.
You should probably choose wisely.