“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.


  • Jennifer

    Interesting thoughts…the conclusion in your last paragraph that life is a gift, particularly. It makes me wonder how we’d live life differently if we really believed that, if we were convinced to the very core of our beings of that idea’s truth and validity. I feel like our life’s purpose would change. The point wouldn’t be to make a name for ourselves or leave behind some part of us that would then ensure our immortality through the memories of those who come after us. Life wouldn’t be about building up our own honor and glory, about leaving behind some monument (physical or otherwise) that would cause people to think of us thousands of years after our bodies have returned to the earth. To be honest, though, I don’t know exactly what life would be like then. I mean, we have the perfect example in the Savior, but as you were discussing about our limited understanding of who the Father really is, do we really understand what Christ’s life was like? We get his early birth, one event when He was a young boy, and then the last three years of His life. What were the other three decades like? What did He do to prepare Himself to live in such a way, and to sacrifice all at the Father’s command? Sure, we have enough information to know how to live our lives–I just wonder what a life would be like if, from birth to death, our own well-being ceased to be our major concern, and was replaced by service to the Father. It’s hard to wrap my imperfect brain around that. From birth to death, my focus wouldn’t be on MY education or MY job or what I’M going to do with my life. It would be on making myself a worthy brick in God’s monument: a collage of the lives of all His children. What would our experiences be like through that lens? How would the impact of academic or occupational (or really any kind of) disappointment change? Would such heartache be less of a big deal? How would we approach learning, approach advancing in life? Would it mean the death of ambition? I like to think that that sort of mindset wouldn’t result in the death of growth and development–our seeking after knowledge and truth would just have a different purpose behind it. To be honest, I just don’t know–but I think it’s really interesting to think about.

    • georgehandley

      Great thoughts, Jennifer. And not many easy answers. I have always believed ambition mattered, that it was good to have ambition, and that it can be selfless to want to make a difference for others now and into the future. Somehow, I still feel that way, but there are times when one takes a look at history how easy it is for the significance of any one life to fade into insignificance rather quickly. There is a difference, of course, between egotistical ambition and the desire to serve, but it is true, as even a humble man like President Hinckley observed, flattery is poison no matter what your motivation. It makes doing good for the right reasons much harder to do because it allows you to forget about the larger picture and thirst for the chance to be singled out and seen as exceptional when the real objective is to lose oneself.