I awakened at five o’clock in the morning to the chirping of birds in the tree outside of my bedroom window. They were singing a message to me: “Your wife is dead and we don’t care. We have our own lives to live.” She had died twenty hours before. Like billions of strangers before and billions to come, she had emerged from the limitless pool of oblivion, touched my life for twenty-six years and three months and returned to nothingness.
She was to die again as her name was erased from documents and her clothes taken from drawers and closets to be sent to a center for battered women. Strangers would carry away her clothes and would care nothing about the person who had in many cases made those items with her hands. In time, she would live only in the memories of those who knew her, until those memories faded into the sea of the forgotten.
We do not ask why an elephant or an ant lives. Their lives have no value or purpose to us. Only the life of a human being has meaning, but we cannot decide what that meaning is. What we proclaim is that we are different from all other living creatures because we have souls or spirits. No one has ever seen one of the special near-divine features, but we are certain that we possess the spiritual characteristics that make us superior to all other species.
Demonstrating our modesty, we have branded ourselves Homo Sapient (man the wise). More than a century ago, the author Stephen Crane questioned just how wise we are:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
Over many years, I have seen the question of our specialness asked numerous times under various circumstances and never answered. On a train between Manhattan and Poughkeepsie I eavesdropped on a man explaining to his ten-year-old-or-so son, “We are New Yorkers.” It was supposed to endow them with some special quality, although he did not explain what that quality was and likely didn’t know or need to know so long as he possessed what made him special. Another time, I watched on the evening television news a mob of crazed baseball fans swarming into the streets around the stadium in Boston. “We won. We won,” they were screaming as they vandalized and looted local businesses. Except for guzzling beer and wolfing down hot dogs, the victorious fans had done nothing, but they claimed all of the glory.
During this time of chaos, the marching feet and waving banners and chanted slogans are all a part of the rage surrounding us. Throughout human history, people have become prisoners of the momentum that has carried them often into disaster. Regardless of the outcome, we need to bind ourselves to something greater than us. We attach ourselves to flags, to religions, to sports teams, to social movements, to races, to professions or to genders. What façade we are projecting for everyone else to see is what we are and not who we are. If you cannot identify something inside of you that makes you unique and display it to others, how can you support a reason for being in this world? There must be a purpose for our presence and that purpose must be determined by a power beyond us. We have to invent an afterlife where only human beings with our superiority can go. A dog dies and is gone. A human being’s body dies, but the spirit or soul lives on in some invisible imagined world.
Have you heard someone–someone who is battling to be significant–speak of having a page in history, as if being remembered in a thousand years explains the granting of life? It is a curiosity to listen to such personalities in society contemplate a legacy. “What will the future say about me” they ask, as if it is of great importance and a driving force. Of course, no one can determine what still unborn historians will say of someone living today. The builder of the legacy can only hope that whatever he or she constructs as an image will survive the ages, but it is only a hope that can never be secure.
Does Julius Caesar know what the future is saying about him and does it alter how he languishes in eternity? Although we think of Hitler and Hitler-type characters of history as monsters, it is doubtful that they had such an image of themselves and likely saw their legacy in grand terms.
Actually, we really do know the answer to what we imagine is a dilemma. It is summarized in a commonly-known phrase, “We go along in order to get along.” What that says is that most human beings have no independent identities and must attach to something outside themselves. So long as we can convince ourselves that the cloak that we have adopted to give us a sense of value has meaning, we can face the passing years and the approach of nothingness in comfort. Those fortunate few who are liberated from the need for the delusion of a meaning for living or dying will sing in turn to the flock of indifferent birds assembled on a nearby branch, “Just like you, I will be dead and it won’t matter.”
The author studied international relations at UCLA and operated a manufacturing and wholesale business for fourteen years. While living in Japan for ten years, he was the director of a private equity business. Now, he is living in Canada where he is focused upon writing and his private investments. He has published the history book Violent Justice and many articles in the fields of international politics and economics. A selection of his articles can be found here. A version of this piece appeared in The Blotter.