“And now I know that man is nothing”

I confess to feeling my utter insignificance. Even when I imagine my life as having realized its maximum impact on the world, it doesn’t take much imagination or realism to acknowledge that one’s life becomes insignificant in the long term with only a turn or two of the years. And what does it matter anyway? Why feel the need to leave a mark, to be remembered? What could possibly motivate this other than some kind of romance about immortality, about mattering in the hearts and minds of those to come. But can we really say that such admiration, even when it has been achieved by the truly famous has mattered at all to them? If there is no life after death, of course it matters not a whit. And if there is, what difference would fame and popularity in this world mean to us then? And when I think strictly about my biology, I find my fantasies of significance to be sheer vanity, a deep and abiding fear of my biology that I fundamentally reject. And yet, and yet, the mind persists in believing instinctively and unshakingly in its own significance and in the meaning of one’s particular life. I am with Unamuno on this: Who can deny that consciousness itself is only meaningful as such precisely because it feels underwritten by the promise eternal perpetuation, that to be thoughtful and aware of life is to stand outside, above, and beyond it, for ever and ever? This despite the fact that the laws of nature and of human history dictate that life is as grass, that all men die, and that, vanity of vanities, the pleasures we can manage to take from this life are merely fleeting, stolen moments against the tide of oblivion that is this universe.

That sounds so grandiose, and it sounds, too, so pessimistic. But I find a kind of comfort, even beauty to be felt in such contemplations. I rather like Ecclesiastes and Job. I don’t reject, by any means, the idea of the personal God, the one who counts the hair on my head, who is invested in my well-being. There is little else I know in the world but the fact of God’s reality and his caring and personal love for every one of us. I have learned that truth over and over again and there is no point in denying or doubting it. But such experiences have come not always in the fullness of experience but in the moments of discovery that, as Moses himself discovers, I am both a son of God and I am nothing. Without the experience of such love, all efforts to contemplate the broader context of life in which I find myself would lead to crushing despair or, maybe even worse, utter indifference toward life. It is only that the older I get the less reliable I feel my own imaginings of his love and concern are. I am more aware of how easy it is to project fantasies onto God, to see the folly of imagining him, by definition and by necessity, caring about things that I care about and sometimes for no better reason than because I care about them! Because the older I get, the more I want to truly understand him, to see what he sees, not to see my own significance, but to understand myself as dust, to see myself in proper proportion to the world, to embrace my beggarliness. That seems the quest.

If I sound morbid, or despairing, it isn’t true. I find myself gaining courage and faith to persist in my belief in a loving Father who also happens to govern the universe, whose love and majesty and glory extend far beyond my minuscule concerns and that therefore shrink me into proper diminution. That I can breathe and weep and laugh and eat and sleep and work—all this seems all the more strange and utterly undeserved and therefore all the more fascinating and glorious. Existence itself becomes a cause for deeper humility and deeper pleasure because I finally see it for what it is: a gift.


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