Someone once asked Neil deGrasse Tyson what the most fascinating thing about the universe was. As if having prepared for the question his entire life, he launched into a full-blown speech:
“The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on Earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy ions in their core. Under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high mass ones among them, went unstable in their later years. They collapsed and then exploded, scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy. Guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems. Stars with orbiting planets. And those planets now have the ingredients for life itself.”
Wow. That’s quite the image to hold in your head. And how impressive the cocktail of life just one planet, our planet, has mixed from these ingredients:
And while we, the species of humans, have come out on the very top of this tree, we’re still just a branch. A tiny splinter of the universe. The genetic difference between the smartest monkeys, chimps, and humans is 1.2%. That’s why they and our toddlers still share many behaviors. So when asked about the possibility of alien existence, Tyson imagines the same gap:
“If aliens came and they had only that much more intelligence than us — the gap that is between us and chimps, and we have DNA in common — if they were only that, they could enslave the entire earth and we wouldn’t even know it. Maybe that has already happened. And we are living our lives as though we are expressing the free will of the human species, yet we are nothing more than an ant farm. On their shelf. So we are their entertainment. Not even worthy of investigation beyond what we look like in their terrarium.”
It’s funny, isn’t it? This contradiction. We are the pinnacle of evolution, and yet, we know next to nothing about the context we’ve been dropped into.
I may not wear a lab coat at work, but I’m a little bit of a scientist myself. Every day, I try to parse a small fragment of that context and make sense of life. Through writing, especially over the past year, I’ve discovered there are many ways this grand, cosmic contradiction is baked into life itself.
Here are 12 of the biggest jokes the universe plays on us.
The first big chuckle is that in this giant explosion atoms, there’s no rational reason why any of us should even have a life. The math of becoming a human in the first place is insane. 400 trillion to one. We always talk about wanting to beat the odds, but we already have. Of course, once you’re here, there’s nothing beyond that you can expect. Welcome to the world and boom, the rug’s pulled out from under you. As Casey Neistat puts it:
“The moment you’re born you start barreling towards the only finish line, which is death. And this journey here, that’s life. And no matter what you do, this momentum can never be slowed and can never stop.”
Some of us are born blind, others die before they’re four. We might be thrown into poverty or immeasurable riches, war or prosperity, a dysfunctional family or a loving one. Life is like holding a clock that never stops ticking. All you know is that one day, it will ring, and then it’s time to go. So you have to make the most of the small window you get. And the only thing we can do about it is accept it.
“Receive without pride, let go without attachment.” — Marcus Aurelius
However, if it wasn’t for that timer in our hand, life wouldn’t be worth anything at all. Who’s to stop you from forever putting things off to tomorrow if not death himself? It’s hard enough with him around. And yet, we spend much of life wishing it wasn’t so.
But when fiction takes a swing at immortality, the story often ends in death all the same. Like in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, when Nicolas Flamel, creator of the tool that grants infinite life, chooses to die because destroying it is best for all. As always, Dumbledore offers perspective:
“To one as young as you, I’m sure it seems incredible, but to Nicolas and Perenelle, it really is like going to bed after a very, very long day. After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure. You know, the Stone was really not such a wonderful thing. As much money and life as you could want! The two things most human beings would choose above all — the trouble is, humans do have a knack of choosing precisely those things that are worst for them.”
Beyond the nature of the universe, Neil has an interesting take on time too:
“I also think of time as this prison. Time makes us all a prisoner of the present, forever transitioning from our own past into an unknown future. That’s
particularly disturbing to me because we can move back and forth in any other coordinate, you know, up and down, left and right, forward and back, but we’re stuck in time. We can’t move forward or backwards in time arbitrarily. So that coordinate has kind of a fundamental difference from the other three.”
So it’s not just that we don’t know how much time we’ll get overall, but that a lot of it is taken from us while we’re here, because we’re stuck in its momentum. Traffic jams, bad weather, disease, plenty of things eat into your temporal bank balance, and so the challenge becomes to waste not more than need be. Yes, money can buy some back, but as Naval Ravikant puts it:
“Money doesn’t solve all your problems, but it solves all your money problems.”
Of course, this quagmire, too, has been addressed by the wise a long time ago. Seneca remarked that no matter how much time you lose, you’re always free to contemplate life and appreciate its beauty over its flaws. Plus, discipline really helps:
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.”
Imagine the stream of consciousness that flows through just one human being over the course of an 80-year life. It’s absurd. Absolutely insane. You could fill an entire library with books that do nothing but document it, let alone analyze what’s going on. We rarely acknowledge this shared spark of madness, however. Naval:
“We’re playing little movies in our heads, walking down the street, but no one’s actually there. Of course, if we started voicing this thought in your head that you’re always having, you’d be a madman and they’d lock you up. The reality is if you walk down the street and there are a thousand people in the street, I think all thousand are talking to themselves in their head at any given point.”
This is a sign we’re pulled out of what Naval calls ‘base reality,’ but instead of doing our best to address this issue and commend the people who fight against it, we come up with a whole bunch of coping mechanisms to continue sticking our heads in the sand. Groupthink, herd behavior, trusting social proof and following social rank, these are all group ‘activities,’ but they only drive us further apart. Because there’s no shared vulnerability, no independence, no admission of “hey, don’t worry, I’m crazy too.”
Sometimes, we bump into someone who’s figured that out. A hippie, a zen monk, or someone who just defies society’s expectations. Those we gladly give credit. They’re the craziest of all. But no one really chooses to be normal. It just happens along the way. In the end, we’re all mad here. And, once we finally come to grips with it, that’s a beautiful thing.
What this default capacity for insanity really shows us is the true power of our imagination. It is the single strongest human skill. Naturally, it was designed to be a double-edged sword.
“Everything you can imagine is real.” ― Pablo Picasso
If Picasso is right, then even imagined pain really hurts and even real obstacles depend on us labeling them as such. While it’s great that we can will things into reality, like skyscrapers, airplanes, even a global network of 1-on-1 connections, we can also dream ourselves into our own demise. Dumbledore said it, we have a talent to choose to want what’s worst for us. Some people perceive such pain that they cut their already short life even shorter. Others squander all their time over fictitious threats. Being able to use your imagination to actually build things is a tremendous gift.
“An idea is like a virus. Resilient. Highly contagious. And the smallest seed of an idea can grow. It can grow to define or destroy you.” — Inception
All pain and all achievement are outgrowths of the human mind. The joke of dealing with it is on us.
Much of our imaginary power is dedicated to how we can make more money, but our eternal financial struggle is mostly a proxy for our desire for freedom.
We tend to measure the progress of human well-being by the number of conditions that restrict freedom. Slavery, segregation, religious persecution, these are all terrible and clearly, they have to go. But it’s still ironic that since the availability of freedom has surged, so has the prevalence of mental disorders. We have more time, more money, more choice than ever, and we have no idea what to do with it. So we stand there, just staring at it all. Our imagination runs rampant and it makes us miserable.
Because freedom alone is no recipe for happiness. We still need discipline, and purpose, and structure, and work. Epictetus, an ancient Greek philosopher, had a good grasp on what entails true freedom. He was a slave much of his life, but apparently, that had nothing to do with it. He talked about it in a material sense…
“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”
…in a mental sense…
“You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.”
…and even in a spiritual sense:
“No man is free who is not master of himself.”
But his most vivid metaphor is also his simplest. It shows that our paralysis by opportunity is a cell of our own making:
“‘Throw him into prison!’ — ‘What prison?’ — ‘Where he is already: for he is there against his will; and wherever a man is against his will, that to him is a prison.’”
Another way freedom comes to haunt us is that we think we have to use it to define who we are. Carve out our own little space from this vast, marvelous block of abundance. This addiction to constantly wanting to appear to the world as a completed puzzle is worse than any other of our many vices. Sex, drugs, money, power, fame, these are all only tools to the identity addict, but he wields them furiously around the clock. Worse still, this destructive force is fed to us from the first bottle of milk.
The problem is not so much wanting to live true to ourselves, that’s a good goal to have, according to Bronnie Ware, author of The Top Five Regrets of the Dying:
“Of all of the regrets and lessons shared with me as I sat beside their beds, the regret of not having lived a life true to themselves was the most common one of all.”
The issue is that doing so would often require contradicting ourselves. Every lesson in life comes at the expense of unlearning another, but the change of heart, mind and behavior is often harder to process than the lesson itself. So we don’t do it at all. This is our biggest limiter of potential. We don’t use our power to reinvent ourselves in any given minute. But, as with our inner madman, there are counterexamples of those who see past the thin veil of identity. Like Jim Carrey, who became a global phenomenon, then threw it all away:
“I believe that I had to become a famous idea and get all the stuff that
people dream about and accomplish a bunch of things that look like success in
order to give up my attachment to those things.”
Look, besides the laws of physics, there are no rules that say what you can and can’t do, think, say, or believe. It’s all Yin and Yang, everything is connected. You can be a brilliant stock trader one day and start a sheep farm the next. Like the near-infinite number of combinations of atoms in your body, your mind should know no limits.
“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” — Walt Whitman
While identity can be a great way to connect with others, it often also acts as this little capsule that separates us from the rest of the world. Most of us want an extraordinary life, but extraordinary by default means lonely. Once again, it is only in contrast to the backdrop of everyone else that loneliness becomes ‘a thing.’ Without society at large, we wouldn’t adjust so much, just in order to keep being understood. That’s it, really. Wanting our neighbors to nod when they see us. Sebastian Marshall describes it as follows:
“I’ve done a lot and I’m really just getting started. But the more you do, the further away you get from being understood, from the joys of normal life, from being understood by your neighbors and backing each other up and living together harmoniously. I cried for the first time in three years when I realized it. The million dollar question… why don’t people take the large opportunities in front of them? Why don’t they allow their dreams to become realities? Because it means you won’t be understood. And we need to be understood, fundamentally, it’s so important to us.”
This frustration over a lack of empathy from others is rooted in an ancient survival instinct: comparing ourselves to others. But, as we saw, the modern world is full of individual freedom, which makes it a futile exercise. Mark Twain called comparison “the death of joy,” but, and this is worse, it’s also the birth of misery. Even among the Stoics, comparisons were already outdated, so they did their best to turn their desire to excel inward. As Seneca wrote in one of his many letters to Lucilius:
“When philosophy is wielded with arrogance and stubbornly, it is the cause for the ruin of many. Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.”
What exacerbates the sadness of not being understood is that our modern society makes the issue look binary. “You either get me, or you don’t.” What happened to “he’ll come around?” I never hear that phrase any more, because we don’t just struggle to change our own mind, we don’t believe others will either. We used to do things despite our friends’ well-intended advice with at least the hope of them understanding down the line. Social media, where the pressure to be consistent is highest, has put a big strain on that. Take Facebook, for example, as David Heinemeier Hansson suggests:
“It stunted this natural, gentle process of growing apart and losing touch. Now the default is to stay connected with everyone you’ve ever friended forever. And to break that connection, you have to actively sever it. Something most people don’t like doing, and don’t like having done to them, so it generally doesn’t happen.”
As the saying goes “you always meet twice.” But if you don’t feel free to leave in the first place, what good does that do? Of course it’s true that most of the time, people don’t come around. Maybe, after years, we realize ourselves that “oh, yeah, I should have given them another chance.” But then it’s either too late to go back or too hard to try.
What if, instead, we just admitted we don’t know? Right then and there. “I’m quitting my job, is that a good idea?” “I don’t know.” Less judging, less adjusting. Do what you’re gonna do, give the world time to come around and stay open to doing the same.
All this appetite for approval and the need to have it now compounds most in our quest for love. We’ve all been there, sitting next to someone, knowing they’ll never be with us. That’s the worst, missing something we never lost. But it also means there was never anything to hold on to in the first place.
The harder you push, the further you blow yourself away. Alan Watts came up with a very succinct description of this paradox in his 1951 book The Wisdom of Insecurity:
“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the ‘backwards law.’ When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it — which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, ‘Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.’”
Again, surrendering to the cosmos is the only way. No, there are no promises you’ll find love, no matter how hard you try. The only person you are guaranteed to spend the rest of your life with is you. So the best we can do is make sure we’re in great company.
Like this lesson in a random slot on this list, one day, death will come knocking on your door. And you won’t be finished. Prepared? Ready? Maybe. But not finished. I like Seth Godin’s skiing analogy. It explains why people keep working well into their old age:
“There isn’t just one dip. It’s not like ‘let’s get through that dip and we’re done.’ Steve Jobs helped invent the personal computer, helped launch the graphical interface, helped launch the mp3 business, helped launch computer animation at Pixar. He [wasn’t] done. Just like skiing, the goal is not to get to the bottom of the hill, the goal is to have a bunch of good runs before the sun sets.”
There’s beauty in living your whole life as if you’re a child out playing on the street. One day, you’ll be skiing, working, reading, writing, skateboarding with the other kids and changing the world. The sun will set and you’ll realize “oh, I won’t be able to finish this today.” If you can go to bed thinking “I’ll do it tomorrow,” that feels like peace. The current of life carries us, whether we accept it or not, but what people like Jobs, Einstein, Picasso show us is that regardless if you welcome it or just ignore it, living your life in seasons creates a sense of calm.
“He has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubborn illusion.” — Einstein about the passing of his friend Michele Besso
One moment we’re here, the next we’re gone. Our biggest revolt against death, this grandest of all cosmic jokes, is to dare to plan beyond it. There’s the stuff we want to leave to our kids, the last will we write, the event itself we organize. And then, there’s the pinnacle of hubris: wanting to leave a legacy. After all, we have an innate understanding of all these things. We know life isn’t fair; that the world is very much an unequal place. But we also know humanity is good at giving credit where credit is due. Even if it means credit for just a few. Like Will Durant said in The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time:
“And so with every country, so with the world; its history is properly the history of its great men.”
Nobody remembers a nobody, so we’re off to civilization’s biggest rat race to determine who can construct the biggest conceptual self on top of their physical one. In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker says these immortality projects are proxies supposed to get us closer to infinite life while still here on earth:
“Society provides the second line of defense against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality bysacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market.”
The irony of jumping through all these hoops is that, of course, we control absolutely nothing about how people remember us. All we know is what’s in history books, but how much of it is true, no one can tell. We weren’t born for millions of years and we’ll be dead for a whole lot longer still. And even though we might care deeply about it, our legacy isn’t up to us.
The Most Astounding Fact
That’s a lot to process. All these contradictions, inequities, games, really, that the universe forces upon us, laughing in our face. And yet, it’s a miracle, a near-impossible coincidence that we’re here.
Someone once asked Neil deGrasse Tyson what the most fascinating thing about the universe was. But even as one of the world’s most distinguished astrophysicists, he doesn’t think we can find it among the distant stars. It’s something we can find among us. Here’s the rest of his speech:
“When I look up at the night sky, I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up. Many people feel small, ’cause they’re small and the universe is big, but I feel big. Because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected. You want to feel relevant. You want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings-on of activities and events around you. That’s precisely what we are. Just by being alive.”