The average lifespan in the UK in 2016 is 81 years. Earth has existed for 4.53 billions of years, Homo Sapiens as a species have existed for only 200,000 years but in that time 108 billions of people have lived their “three score years and ten.” Time will go on infinitely after we are dead. Who knows how many more billions will be born, live and die?
Live is abundant. Human life is abundant. But paradoxically for each of us as individuals it is a time-limited resource that will inevitably come to an end. So our own lives are infinitely precious to us and those who love us.
Even more so if like me you do not believe in any kind of ‘afterlife’. If there is no afterlife then before we were born our consciousness did not exist and after the spark of ‘life’ leaves our body our consciousness will once more cease to exist… for eternity. The universe has existed for 14 billion years. 1 year x 1 milion x 1 thousand x 14. For 14 billion years i did not exist and the universe seems to have coped quite well. And after my consciousness ceases the universe will continue on its path for billions and billions of years hence. The same applies to you, whoever you are, and however succesful you think you are.
All of us, however ‘great’ we think we are, whatever ‘success’ we achieve in our short lives, are almost entirely insignificant. In a billion years Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare, Ghandi, Henry VIII, the Egytian Pharoahs, the Inca Kings will all have disapeared into the mists of time. Even in ten thousand years almost everything we regard today as politically, economically, historically or culturally significant will be forgotten. (Bear in mind that agriculture and the first cities developd ten thousand years ago. The ‘great and the good’ of today will have no more significance than the lowliest of the low. Time reduces us ALL to dust.
Any living creature has to constantly seek for food, water and shelter in order to survive. They also have to try and avoid becoming food or shelter for some other creature. So in that sense all living creatures have to ‘work’ to live – “life is struggle” as the Buddah so reassuringly put it.
For the vast majority of humanity currently living it is no longer possible to find food, water and shelter in the natural environment either because there is no productive natural environment to speak of, or it is all ‘owned’ by other homo sapiens who claim that only they are entitled to benefit from the resources of their patch of the natural environment and who will use brute force to protect their monopoly over those benefits.
So almost all of us have to sell our labour to other homo sapiens in order to ‘earn’ the right to access food, water and shelter. We have no choice in this. Work or die. This however is a very recent development. For 190,000 of the 200,000 years our species has existed we lived in small (150) egalitarian, nomadic bands who survived by collaborating and sharing the abundant natural resources around them.
But in the last three hundred years human ingenuity leading to mass production has coincided with a long brutal, political struggle leading to the temporary triumph of libetarian and egalitarian ideas, has led to many millions of us having access to a myriad of luxuries far beyond the necessities of food, water and shelter.
This is of course to be welcomed and not many of us in the rich West would swap our comfortable desk jobs, our central heating and our smart phones for a strip of land and a peasants hut. But global neoliberal capitalism based on the self-defeating idea of infinte growth within finte resources, means that most of us alive today live out our few short decades of individual consciousness on a meaningless treadmill of consumerism. Working all day at boring or unpleasant tasks unrelated to our own dreams and interests in order to ‘earn’ the credits that will enable us to buy more stuff, and when we have acquired that particular stuff, we will be convinced by advertising and peer pressure that it isn’t good enough stuff, so we will return to our ‘jobs’ and work even harder to get some ‘better’ stuff.
Not only this, many of us have also been conned into believing that our ‘success’ in fulfilling these ‘jobs’ is what defines our worth and our status in society and for many it these ‘jobs’ that give a sense of purpose and meaning to our lives. Unsurprisingly then that these ‘jobs’ become incredibly important to many of us, they consume all our energy, creativity and dominate our emotional life. We spend most of the daylight hours doing them and indeed some of those who are ‘succesful’ at these ‘jobs’ are rewarded with extreme material wealth and extraordinary levels of social privilige. Conversely some of the ‘failures’ even kill themselves because they do not ‘succeed’ at these jobs. They end their three score years and ten prematurely and return to the eternity of non-existence that had preceeded their birth and the brief flicker of their consciousness that momentarily illuminated the cosmos, because they did not get the promotion they desired or because a particular legal system had declared them ‘bankrupt’.
To carry on like this we have to inflict a sort of mass self-deception, we have to avoid looking at our existential reality, at our almost total insignificance and we have to convince ourselves that our successes and our failures are meaningful, that they do genuinely say something about our moral worth, that we do matter, and not just to those who love us, but to the universe.
Ultimately as individuals we are ALL insignificant and individual achievement or failure is an illusion. ‘Success’ is as empty of meaning as ‘failure’ and the wealth and privilige of the ‘succesful’ is as undeserved as the suffering of the ‘failed’.