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The significance of your insignificance

I had to deliver a eulogy at a funeral recently.

Observing endings is a good time to dwell on the meaning of your life. One minute, you are fully alive on earth, working, contributing, connecting; the next, due to some often surprising turn of events, you will be gone. No more, with people gathered around your lifeless form to record the passing.

Many people experience a moment of realization during a funeral; most, however, walk away brushing it off. They get back to their lives, get on with their work, make themselves busy – anything to not have to think about the thing, that unsettling, scary thing. And the thing is this: we are all, all of us, insignificant.

It doesn’t matter whose eulogy is being delivered: whether it’s a loyal driver or a respected CEO; a kiosk-owner, or an epoch-creating president. It’s all the same. In the end, all earthly achievements fade away. Life goes on. People move on. Memories fade. None of us want to accept this; yet all of us must.

As I have written here before, no individual human matters. You are one in seven billion, living on a piece of rock floating in the immenseness of a space we can neither measure nor comprehend. You are a speck, alive briefly on another speck. Sure, you will matter briefly to a few people; but in the end, you too are washed away by the waves of time.

Very few of us want to think about this. Most of us want to lose ourselves in a TV programme, hide behind a book, gratify ourselves momentarily by indulging the senses of the body. Do something, anything except give some thought to how this story, like all such stories, ends. Until the next funeral. And the next. Until, inevitably, our own.

Talking about death, thinking about it, discussing it, is one of those strange taboos in society. Many of you may be recoiling from reading this article. But you can’t have taboos about things that are unavoidable facts. Life, as was said most meaningfully by a comedian, John Cleese, is a sexually transmitted terminal disease. We should laugh as we accept the inevitability of the end.

The point, though, is the significance of your insignificance. One outcome of deep contemplation is to fall into deep lethargy. If it all just ends, and nothing matters, then what’s the point? Many an existential crisis is triggered by embracing mortality. Albert Camus famously pointed out that human life is just the same as pushing a rock up a hill, as Sisyphus was condemned to do, only to watch it roll down again, and repeating the process over and over again. It is absurd. Everyone is pushing the rock, from the mother cooking the meal for her child; to the chief executive poring over yet another spreadsheet to present to his investors; to the columnist churning out yet another piece for yet another Sunday. All the rocks will come rolling back.

And yet, in this very absurdity, is hidden the meaning. We all have our rocks, and we must all push them well. In the striving, in the struggle, is the point. Life on earth may indeed be ephemeral; but it must be lived well. It must be conducted with honesty and decency and fortitude. Not because other men have said so, but because that is the premise embedded in all of us.

Push your rock well, whatever it is. Push it to the best of your ability. Push it such that you cause no harm. Push it so that it livens up the days of others. Push it so that you bring improvement into the world. Enjoy the singing of the birds and the play of the light as you push. Push it knowing you’ll just have to push it again. But push, for pushing is the human condition.

As another year ends, and another year begins, I leave you to think about your rock.

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