By Jin-yeong Yi
“All philosophies, while disagreeing about all else, agree on one thing—they all recognize the reality of death, its inevitability, even when recognizing, as some do, nothing real in the world. The most skeptical systems, doubting even doubt itself, bow down before the fact of the reality of death.”
—Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov
“On the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it was thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
—The Bible, Genesis 3:19 (King James Version)
“There is no place history is heading, except toward the maximum-entropy heat death of the universe.”
—Alex Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality
Last month, there was a death in my extended family. The deceased was one of my cousins, who was an attorney and apparently very much looked up to by our nephews. I didn’t know him very well at all, but when I heard the eulogies, which described how he would always be there for the people in his life, I felt I understood why he was so beloved.
As far as I can remember, it was actually the first wake I’d ever attended. It was also the first time I’d seen a corpse in real life. Carefully prepared though he was, how cold and lifeless he still looked! My relatives and my mother were weeping uncontrollably and inconsolably, as if the world had come to an end. It all felt quite surreal, as if I were in a movie.
Afterwards, my family gathered at a large buffet where we had dinner in honor of the departed. I got a rare opportunity to chat with kin that I only saw about once a year, if not less.
When I left, I gave one of my late cousin’s brothers a small hug before heading to the parking lot. He was shattered; he looked like an abandoned child, homeless and lost in the cold of winter. Now that the celebration had ended and everyone was going their separate ways, there was going to be nothing left to distract them from their grief.
While I was in college I realized that living in this world was as futile as building sandcastles on the seashore. Now I see just how thoroughly succinct the metaphor is. We are living on borrowed time. Unless humankind finds a way to reverse the laws of thermodynamics, as Nikolai Fyodorov hoped, the day will eventually come when the race will go the way of the dinosaurs. Everything that this ambitious species will have built will eventually crumble to dust. Civilization, culture, art, learning, everything. Even the gold-gilded pages of history, which have given a number of people a sort of life beyond death, will disappear, and there will be no one to read them anyway. Every drop of blood, sweat, and tears shed in the name of the things that humans have found worth striving for and living for will fade away into nothingness along with the fruits of their efforts. The abyss will spare nothing and no one.
“Why, then,” one might ask, “should I care about any of this?” As an atheist and a nihilist, I can offer very little in the way of comfort, unlike the preacher who confidently promises that every tear will eventually be wiped away by the hand of God. I certainly can’t offer “objective” reasons for caring about the future. Indeed, indifference is not invalid. It’s not wrong; it’s not even unreasonable. We don’t have to care. But by the same token, neither do we have to be apathetic. The choice is ours. And I choose to care.
Even if we don’t have all eternity, we do have the moment, the here and now. And we can choose to throw it away or make the most of it.
The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes advises:
“Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity; for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labor which thou taketh under the sun.
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave wither thou goest.”
Life is a lost battle from the very beginning, but for my part, I reject a hedonistic lifestyle simply because I find that excess leaves me feeling hollow and dissatisfied. What appeals to me personally is the idea of having goals, of having ends to work toward. With the right goals, not only the accomplishment of goals but also the process leading to accomplishment can make life feel worth living, with the hope of achievement giving meaning to the future, and the efforts toward achievement giving meaning to the present.
As easy as it is for me to take my time for granted and go by a vague assumption that tomorrow will always be there for me, I see wisdom in living each day as if it were my last, because for all I know, each day could be my last. As Corliss Lamont observed, “Nothing is more certain for us than death and nothing more uncertain than the precise hour at which it will strike.”
I believe in actively pursuing knowledge and acquiring new skills, in bettering myself, even if I won’t last forever. I believe in helping others, even if they won’t last forever. I believe in having dreams and never giving them up, even with the yawning abyss of nothingness before me. I see wisdom in living prayerfully, reverently, setting my goals for the day and striving to accomplish them. To work hard so that, when it is time to sleep, I will be able to tell myself that I’ve spent the day well enough to deserve another–even if it’s not in the stars for me.
If there is one thing that can tip the scale between apathy and interest, it is love. Love for others, love for learning, love for everything one regards as noble and beautiful, even love for oneself. In other words, love for life.
I will let Shelly Kagan have the last word:
“The fact that billions and billions of years from now it’s all going to be the same doesn’t mean it’s all the same now.”
 The Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:9-10 (King James Version)
 Freedom of Choice Affirmed by Corliss Lamont