The meaning of life … as seen from high altitude

Detail of the "Pale Blue Dot" photo, showing Earth as seen from Voyager 1. Via Wikimedia Commons

Detail of the “Pale Blue Dot” photo, showing Earth as seen from Voyager 1. NASA, via Wikimedia Commons

You’ve heard the claim from Christians—that atheism strips life of its meaning. No divine plan, no eternity, only the finality of death. How could you find joy in such a pointless existence? Why even get out of bed in the morning? This is a subjective question, but let me explain how I look at it. An analogy came to me while I was looking down from an upper-story window onto a snow-covered lawn.

Someone had trampled a message into the snow, “I [heart] U,” and I realized that while you probably couldn’t read the words from the sidewalk, you could see them perfectly from a fifth floor window. In fact, I realized the whole lawn could best be read from here. I saw neat lines of crisscrossing footprints and could tell where each walker was heading, and with what stride. I saw clumps of ornamental grass bent down under the weight of the snow… a feral cat disappearing leisurely into the bushes… a squirrel racing up a tree… a young woman talking animatedly on her phone, holding it with one hand and gesturing with the other, smiling, and then hanging up and walking on quietly, hands stilled… another squirrel racing up that same tree.

From here I was high enough to see it all at once, but still low enough to make out bits of narratives. Who is the girl talking to? Why are the squirrels so wound up? Who hearts whom? But the distance was beginning to shrink everyone toward insignificance, and their lives appeared only as passing fragments. The view from skyscraper altitude would diminish them to ant-like proportions, and jetliner altitude would erase them entirely and make the land abstract and barren.

This diminishment of the individual is analogous to what we feel when contemplating a human life from the “altitude” of evolutionary time or universal space. What meaning or significance can a life possibly have within its sliver of a multi-billion-year span of time on an obscure planet orbiting a doomed star in a mediocre galaxy?

Your life regains its significance the moment you view it at its natural scale.

The answer is that life isn’t lived at that altitude. Now and then it’s good to step back and contemplate life from the high-altitude perspectives of history and geography—or even of deep time and space, taking in the broad patterns and the resulting smallness of the individual. That can be enlightening, humbling, even disillusioning. But again, life isn’t lived there. As soon as you exit that contemplation and are back on the ground among the people you know and love, the details and the little narratives envelope you again. Your life regains its significance the moment you view it at its natural scale. But now it’s even richer. Having seen the land from various high altitudes, you now know something about the larger patterns of which you are a part. You’ve gained a broader perspective, and the awe and humility that comes with it.

(For what it’s worth, although my religious views have changed over the years, the size of the universe never bothered me. Growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, made it seem normal to live in a place that nobody else would consider interesting or important. Maybe our little solar system is the Des Moines of the galaxy. It doesn’t matter. It’s still home.)

3 thoughts on “The meaning of life … as seen from high altitude

  1. Pingback: Reply to “There Is No God, And I Hate Him” | Pretentious Ape

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