When things have all got a bit too much (and if I remember) I sit and imagine our planet and the noise we produce seeping out into an empty and silent universe. Perhaps ours is the only sound of what we call “life”. At some point, those sounds will end, and the universe will return to the silence that existed before. Yet the universe, its galaxies, stars and planets, will continue to turn, indifferent and as if we and biological life had never existed.
Imagining the inevitable demise of all life in the universe is an exercise that I find useful. It brings perspective to the concerns of my day. Some might say it brings too much perspective, and it is true that I am sometimes accused of looking at the problems of the day with an almost Olympian indifference, but this is to miss the point of the exercise. Its utility lies not only in pulling me out of my petty concerns but also in reminding me those petty concerns matter because for the moment both they and I are both here. That will not always be the case. We – both problems and I – will disappear, and those who follow will care not a jot for my problems because they will have problems of their own, and this replacement will happen many times over before the Earth, let alone the universe, goes silent.
My cosmic imagining might seem excessively pessimistic, but it is hardly original. It probably owes much to Byron’s “Darkness”, written in the so-called “year without summer”. In that year of 1816, a volcanic eruption in Indonesia threw up enough ash to cause worldwide disruption of harvests and weather patterns. (Snow fell in New England in July, while in Europe there had not been so well a documented catastrophe since the Lisbon Earthquake sixty-one years earlier, one Lake Geneva house party, more laudanum-addled than any Kate Bush video, produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre.)
In the canonical Christian tradition, the immediate extinction of all life is about as far from Christ’s consideration of the lilies as the Book of Ecclesiastes, but both, if taken rightly, produce the same effect on one’s sense of place in the world – we are, in a word, insignificant.
In other traditions, the American psychologist and Buddhist, Tara Brach, tells a story urging us “never to travel far from our death”. I recently read of a Chinese emperor who, on asking his advisors distill their wisdom into one sentence, received the single sentence, “This too shall pass”, a point which applies equally to both our joys and our sufferings, as well as empires and life, individual and general.