Thoughts on Living in a Godless Universe

My existence is a gift.

I have been given my existence in the most literal way possible. My parents gave of themselves, physically, that I may grow. They gave of their bodies that I may have a body of my own. In this same way am I indebted to my grandparents, as they gave of themselves so my parents may exist. Back and back I must go, through ancestors human and not, until I reach that moment when whatever we qualify as life became living. All of them have literally given of themselves that I may exist. I am, in parts great and small, all of them. It is of their bodies that I am composed–patchwork.

Let me not forget those who have nourished me. While developing in my mother’s womb, she ate of animals, fruits, vegetables. It was from this nourishment that I found the energy necessary to become the body I am today. Furthermore, now born, I continue to nourish my body. I consume. Again, I receive a gift of the bodies of the animals and plants that feed me. I receive a gift of the labor of those who tend my food and take part in it being available for my consumption. This gift goes back to the plants that feed my food and to the minerals that fertilize those plants. It goes back to the chemicals that give structure to the world and to the stars in which those chemicals form. It goes back to the supernovae that spread those chemicals across the vastness of this universe. Just as my ancestors have given a little of themselves that I may have the material needed to have a body, so has the entire universe given a little of itself that I may have the energy to open my eyes, breathe in the morning air, and begin the day.

My life is indebted.

This gift that is my existence, it does not come free. Payment comes due when my life ends. I must give my body back to the universe that it may nourish others. My composition will be repurposed. It will be broken down and used to form new structures. I will be consumed. Just as I have fed, on me will others feed. With the decomposition of my body, my debt is repaid.

I leave the ranks of the indebted and become a giver. I cannot see where my body will go. I cannot know what will become of me. Though I secretly hope that my parts will find themselves spread to the far corners of this universe, I know that I will never experience this. I will cease. That’s fine. I can content myself with the knowledge that I will give back.

My debt has value.

Close your eyes and imagine a penny. One hundred pennies equal one dollar. These dollars can be used to buy a potted plant and a desk on which that plant can rest. Similarly, that desk and potted plant can be sold for dollars. Those dollars can be converted to pennies. Imagine everything in the universe expressed as a monetary value. Convert that to dollars and convert those dollars to pennies. Now lay those pennies out on a flat surface such that they form a square. Try to envision all of these pennies. If you’re like me, you cannot. What you envision is an approximation, only. Such is the limit of our imagination. But the collection of pennies is not infinite. It has an end. Its shape is defined. Our universe is vast beyond our imagination, but it is not infinite. It is contained.

Reach out and grab the nearest penny. This is you. You are but one penny in a collection so large it is unimaginable. How worthless you must be, and yet, without you the whole becomes less valuable. Without you, the whole becomes impoverished. I am composed of matter and energy. This is nothing special. Much is composed of matter and energy. But matter and energy are finite. Though I am one of an unimaginable number of pennies, there can still only be so many pennies, and I am one of them. The value isn’t found in the fact that I am composed of matter and energy, but that matter and energy are finite resources that have come to compose me. The value is found in the fact that I exist at all. This is my debt. Moreover, this invites a question: how should I spend my debt? Considering I am spending a finite resource, my purchases matter.

I spend my debt virtuously.

Just as my body is a patchwork composition of my ancestors, so is my character similarly constructed. I am the lessons they’ve learned and the stories they’ve told. I am their hopes and dreams and aspirations. Within me, they clash with each other. They clash with my neighbors and friends. They clash with the thinkers of my time and times past. They clash with me, with my hopes and dreams and aspirations.

In all of this, wisdom is gained. Insight is drawn from the rational and the experiential. Truths are uncovered. In these clashes of ideas and aspirations we find the virtues, the qualities to which we align our characters. It is here that we find our right and wrong, our good and bad. These clashes have long existed, and they will likely persist forever more.

If I sound like I am tarnishing the good name of the ethical, let me be clear, I intend no such thing. My point is merely this: though I strive to be the best person I can be and to leave the world as best a place as I can, I both expect and hope that my progeny can be better people and leave the world an even better place than upon my end. It is a simple acknowledgement that I do not have all of the answers, even to the ethical questions.

The meaning is found in my debt.

So what? It is a fair question. All of this talk about pennies and patchworks seems meaningless in light of the fact that it ends. It all ends. It is a realization that troubles many; however, it is a point that should arise no concern. What worry is to be found in the fact that it all ends? None. It all ends.

But what of meaning? It is to give. I give my time and energy to doing good work. I give it to being kind and spreading love. I give it producing material wealth, intellectual wealth, creative wealth, and emotional wealth. Then, I give that wealth. When it is all done, of course, I give my physical body. I repay my debt.

Do not be mistaken, this giving is not selflessness. It requires a lot of personal attention to how I live and what I do. It is the task of cultivating myself into a virtuous person that I may lead a good life. It is far from a lack of concern for oneself. Quite the opposite, I am diligent in considering my actions. I reflect on what I have done and why. I meditate on the person I want to be in order to prepare myself for when I have to be that person. It is the selfish task of dedication to being a good person.

Why dedicate myself to being good? That is the best way to spend my debt. There is no better way I can honor and thank those to whom I am indebted than to use the gift of my existence to be a source of good in the world. As far as we can tell, much of what exists is indifferent. It is neither good nor bad. However, the nature of my existence is not indifferent. I have moral agency.

Through our actions, collectively, we write our story. Yes, the story will end. The universe will end. Humanity will end. I will end. But in my time and with the funds of my debt, I told a good story. There lies the meaning of life. In the vastness of the universe, no matter my relative insignificance, I still took the debt of my existence and purchased a life worth living. May those who nourish upon me live similarly well.