This I am writing at someone’s request—a person I know well and love, who recently told me that her life had had no impact beyond, perhaps, having produced her children. She seems to have given into this thought, and so it is on her children’s achievements that she now pins all her hopes for making the world a better place. She spoke to me and almost visibly receded into the background, and I felt as though in a theatre, watching her dissolve into the set, the boards of the stage. As she said these things, I could see her face acquire a kind of filmy blankness—a veil of surrender. Separation. Meaninglessness.
This woman—let us call her Mrs. Alpha, for with her our discourse begins—has lived a long and marvelous life already with no reason to think more good years are not ahead. She grew up with many friends and had tremendous adventures, the stories of which still regale her children; she earned an education and worked for decades on projects of use alongside her colleagues, some of whom also became dear friends; she created and nurtured a loving family who pass on this love to others and return it back to her; she has read and listened, debated and consoled, took care of the sick, helped out friends, shared laughter, sacrificed and rested. She’s known joy and suffering. Her life has been hard and good, and everywhere she goes, people fall in love with her. To me, for as long as we’ve known each other, she’s been an inspiration and a teacher of how to love, how to be strong, and how to appreciate excellence, beauty, and goodness.
When Mrs. Alpha said she’d left no impact upon the world, I asked her, incredulously, why she would think that, after all the good she’s done to all the people around her, and her answer seemed to indicate that she thought, our contribution is weighted by how well known it is. By how famous we are.
My rant in response, you can imagine, was long, loud, and spitting hot. She listened, then said, “Write about it.” And so I am writing.
What is it that changes the world?
What makes the tracks in the snow?
How do we matter?
What is the difference between seen and unseen?
Is beauty worth being if no one will see, and is it even beauty?
I know, it seems like my last question is far off topic, but it’s not. Here, we have an object without a subject, apparently worthless in its loneliness. Mrs. Alpha is a subject who doesn’t think she’s found her object—worthless in her uselessness. They are two sides of the same question, and it’s not new by any stretch of the imagination.
Who is not familiar with the old mind-bender: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” The question, though maybe not the concept, is at least 300 years old and has traveled through many a philosophical theory to crystallize our thought on where reality resides and what it is. Within or without us? Subjective or objective? From subjective idealists (who think the forest puffs out of existence when nobody’s looking) to scientific realists (who claim we can reliably predict the behavior of unobserved entities, as if we could experiment by floating in a separate reality) and everyone in between, metaphysicians have posited a relationship between subject and object. Some say one depends upon the other to have existence, others not, and there are degrees and kinds, but all agree: you need both to have meaning.
All seem to agree: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear, and no one will ever be around to know, then, whether it makes a sound or not doesn’t matter at all. Not even a little. Not even a teeny-weeny bit. Unless heard, sound is meaningless. Does that mean Mrs. Alpha is right: The more people hear, the more meaningful the thud of a fallen tree?
And what about other things? The beauty that so fills the universe, most of which probably no living creature is around to see: impossible sunsets on distant planets, galaxy eclipses, incredible rock formations somewhere on Tau Sigma Five? And here, at home, on our warm and populated Earth: that song you sing in the shower when no one is home? That dance you burst into on a deserted beach? That curve of your body that would make an artist faint—and there, it’s gone, and your last poem, your latest painting, torn and burned and never shown to anyone. A butterfly of breathtaking pattern that lived one day in the depth of the jungle, no appreciative eyes lain upon her wings. What about these things of beauty that die without witness? Are they without meaning? Without use? Without impact?
We tend to find meaning in conscious processing. In a way, that’s how we define meaning. Logic dictates, then, that beauty unseen is a waste of beauty, a shame, doesn’t it? Is that presumptuous, enormously anthropocentric, or at least “awareness-centric”?
You are familiar with a common human instinct to share new experience. When we encounter that cloud in the shape of a dancing rabbi, or a story that makes us cry, or a brilliant solution to an old problem, we turn to those near us and point, and give, and holler, “Look what I found! See it with me!” And if no one’s around, we pull out a camera or a computer or a phone and freeze the moment, send out information, preserve the memory—share, share, share. We time our vacations so loved ones can go with us, and we send out invitations to events for a friend “plus one” because we know: people bring people along to share experience with. Even awed by an embracing silence of the desert we touch our companions on the arm and whisper, “It is so quiet here…” And break the silence in sharing it. Our meaning multiplies when known by others. Again, Mrs. Alpha seems to be right: The more people hear, the more meaningful the silence.
Still, not everything can be shared this way; not everything should be. We forget. In the roaring stream of thought and phenomena, we have to let go of much without fixing it in words or images, or our lives would simply be too cluttered, and a whole lot of precious ideas, gorgeous moves, elegant turns of phrase slip through the time stream unnoticed by human minds—potential art, potential science, potential projects, solutions, arguments… We hide. We keep secrets and innermost thoughts. We are shy or tired or misunderstood. We don’t always want to share. Sometimes, we are simply alone—too far from other people, separated by choice or circumstance, hermits, prisoners, or exiles. I know a couple good books that prize charity done in secret above all other kinds. What happens to the experience that isn’t shared? Isn’t noticed, talked about, spread around?
Let us be honest: the first answer is, We don’t know. We don’t exactly know. “Meaning,” after all, is a conventional concept. It stands for whatever we make it stand for. We define it for ourselves. It is whatever it means to us. But another thing we don’t know is how much impact we really have on the world, when, why, and of what kind. People’s paths cross and then run their own course, and one can never be sure what tracks he has left on the other’s crossing. I have learned this time and again from students I’d been sure either slept through my course or resented it from first day to last who suddenly show up later—sometimes years later—to tell me it had changed their lives. That made me think of the people who shaped my own life, sometimes in very brief encounters. I am sure not all of them know it or even remember who I am.
When Mrs. Alpha was a young and daring college student, she’d go mountaineering with a group of friends. She told me this one story a few times: on a day that could have been her last, they were inching, one by one, around a rock that protruded into a very steep gorge, foaming waters of a mountain river far below them. Several people had already gone when Mrs. Alpha’s turn came, and a stone under her foot had gotten loose, she slipped and was falling straight down—a matter of a second and she’d be gone, nothing but a pile of bloodied bones to be picked up beneath—when the man behind her caught her by the wrist. He was tall, strong, and very lucky. Both of them. If not for him, she would be dead that day, and none of her children would ever be born.
Arguing with Mrs. Alpha about the wake her life was leaving on the universe, I asked her if she thought that man today realized the impact he’d made. If he knew her children thanked him decades later in their thoughts. If, summing up his life, he counts that day among the great things he has done: He saved a life. She said, no. She doubts he even remembers. I wonder how many people she doesn’t remember are thanking her today. How many are thanking you.
Of course, we hurt and bless each other along the way often without knowing. It works both ways. The point is, we look forward as we walk, and we cannot see the tracks we leave in the snow.
So this was my first answer to Mrs. Alpha about the importance of what we do and create if it doesn’t become famous, noticed, or even seen by other people: We don’t know. My second answer was: It doesn’t matter.
Not that it truly doesn’t matter but that the condition of the question is so inconsequential that any difference in the answer will not feature a significant variation. Here’s what I mean: The world is mind-bogglingly, enormously, unfathomably grand and more complex than we can begin to imagine. This non-linearly temporal multiverse, steeped in infinity and eternity, intertwined times and dimensions and vast expanses and minute intricacies, laws of physics fluid and coexisting, spiritual fabric tying up physical realities, levels and facets and quivering, intimate connections, tuning itself in every tiny corner to an immense chord of a scale we have not even an inkling of a word for… Our known world—the Earth, where our hopes and vanities rest—is a spec of specs in the Universe’s majestic canvas, no less precious for its tiny size. But a couple more or a couple fewer million humans applauding our creations is such a miniscule difference after all, on the scale of where it all goes, that it doesn’t matter in the end who is more famous. Which book gets a second edition. Whose statue is erected and stands on a little planet in the corner of a little galaxy for a little bit of time. The beauty, the ideas, the kindness we create fall into place on the canvas of Reality so cosmic that Plato and Pirsig blend into one dot.
I spoke earlier of our tendency to define meaning via awareness, and I worried that it is anthropocentric of us, but it is so only if we assign the sole faculty of awareness to ourselves. Some do. Most don’t. I think, maybe, our instinct to share experience and our natural desire to find meaning in awareness come from the same source: a built-in, subliminal sense that Reality is personal.
Reality on the whole is personal. The temporal universe is a temporary outgrowth of the eternal Reality somewhat like a human being is a temporary outgrowth of a person. As a person is expressed in temporality through the faculty we’ve termed soul, heart, and so on, eternal Reality is expressed through Love—these are animating faculties of temporal physical existences they hold together, making bodies what they are. Those of us who’ve formulated this belief, more or less, call the eternal Reality “God,” but it doesn’t matter what word you use. We are fellow believers in this if we agree: all things have their meaning, nothing is lost. Nothing is a waste. The source of the universe is also its goal and witness, creator and nature, metastructure and superconsciousness—the Eyes of God.
Let us dance in the desert. Sing over the ocean. Write a poem for publication or for a diary. Change the lives of a thousand people or of one. When starlight plays in a gas cloud in a galaxy far away, when you hold the hand of a comatose patient, it is by God, for God—the blossoming in Love of the temporal universe, and nothing is in vain.