A few weeks ago I was in Salem, Massachusetts. It's a really nice town on the ocean with quaint red brick buildings and lots of trees. It's also full of shops selling jokey witch knick-knacks, cashing in on the Salem witch trials.
The witch trials were three hundred years ago, a mere instant in the cosmic timeline, and we're already over it. he murders and suffering that took place back then are forgotten in any context other than a purely academic one.
We also don't really care about the atrocities of World War One or prior wars. World War Two and the Vietnam war are both recent enough that we can still connect emotionally with them, but that probably won't be true a few generations from now.
In a way, the horrible things that humans have done to each other in the past don't really matter. They mattered a lot to those involved, both directly and tangentially, and some of them mattered to successive generations, but their importance has an expiration date.
If we look forward hundreds or thousands of years, we can imagine that even the most important events of our lives, both good and bad, will be forgotten. Any individual impact we have is likely to be diluted to nothing by that time.
The argument that nothing really matters is a fair one. Emotionally this doesn't feel true at all, but looking back historically and projecting forwards, it's not much of a logical leap to say that life is futile. Given enough time, whatever you and I do will be completely unimportant and forgotten.
Some people find this depressing and use it to justify doing nothing. What's the point, they ask? I think there's a different way to look at it, though. Life is pointless, but that's also a reason to do everything.
Over a long enough time horizon, failure looks just about the same as success. Either one is a speck so small that it can't be individually noticed. Remove failure and success, and the one thing left is this human experience. Even if there's no real point to this existence, it is a sublimely interesting and enjoyable thing to have. The awesomeness of the existence of consciousness is trumped only by the fact that we've each been lucky enough to experience it.
We get to be in this incredible universe for a very short time, and then it's over. Since it is the one concrete thing we have, why not make the most of it?
Making the most of life means different things to different people, which is sort of the point. None of it actually matters, so you may as well make the most of it in your own little way. My way of doing that is to try to experience and understand as much of life as possible, knowing that I'll only barely scratch the surface.
At the same time, I have a sense of reverence for the experience of others, and I hope that as I explore and seek to understand, I can help others get a little bit more out of their own lives. In my own strange way of thinking, the two best things I can do are good things and novel things. Good things make other people's experiences better, and novel things make my experience better while providing fuel for other good things I might do.
Is life futile? In the grand scheme of things, it is. That line of thinking can be used to discourage, or it can be used to motivate oneself to make the most of the brief existence we have. I think the latter is a better way to do it, but then again... it doesn't really matter in the long run.
Photo is some hieroglyphics from the Met in NYC. Ancient writing about something that was extremely important then, but irrelevant now.
Speaking of the Met, check out my friend Nick's new AWESOME museum tours: Museum Hack. His tours are completely responsible for me loving art.