"Only the Eternal Matters"

Copyright (c) 2008 by Kenny Felder

Augie used to start meetings with this little stumper. "Tonight, you're invited to the best party you've ever been to. You're going to have the most fun you've ever had in your life. But—starting tomorrow morning when you wake up—you will have no memory of the party at all for the rest of your life. Do you want to go?"

It's a good question: different people give different answers, and everyone has to think. But I was firmly in the "no" camp. If the whole experience is erased the next day, it has no point at all. That's the answer Augie was looking for, as it turns out, because then he would point out the inevitability of death. If death brings oblivion, than how can anything you do matter at all?

One of my own high school students, Dylan Nickels, made the same point independently:

If all our lives are specks of dust on a cosmic coffee table, then death is that apocalyptic dust rag, wiping away any trace of our existence. And we'll be replaced by some other transient detritus, only to be wiped clear once more. The new dust knows or cares nothing for the old, and then is gone. Death negates meaning. If nothing is forever, nothing matters. I guess you could say I believe only the eternal matters.
Most thinking people hit that thought sooner or later. Then they dismiss it and move on, or they work their way around it somehow, or they look to spirituality as a way of finding something eternal.

But here's my point in writing this essay: Dylan is wrong. "Only the eternal matters" doesn't hold water.

A story that illustrates why "only the eternal matters"

I'm in my living room, surrounded by friends, watching the championship of the NCAA basketball tournament. With three minutes to go, Carolina is down by two points. Boo! Carolina makes a three-pointer, and goes up by one. Hooray! The other team fouls, Carolina makes two free throws, then steals the ball and hits another three-pointer. Wow! As the game breaks for a commercial, we take stock of every detail. 2:15 left to go. Carolina is up by six points. They're in the bonus. The possession arrow is pointing to Carolina. The other team has the ball. Every statistic and every play is soaked with meaning.

But you know what? We're actually watching a videotape of yesterday's game. A rude neighbor now walks in and says "Carolina lost that game by three points. The other team is the champion."

The three-pointer...the foul trouble...who cares about any of that now? The facts of the game are still the same, but all the meaning is drained out of them. The other team's clutch play still matters, but only because it helped them win. And the great plays Carolina made? They don't matter at all; life would be just the same if they had never happened.

If you're not a basketball fan, you can substitute anything with a definite ending: interviewing for a job, wooing a girl, struggling through a college class. For any of these, look back on the process after you pass the goal, and I think you will quickly arrive at:

The moral
Question: Of all the things that happened yesterday, which ones still matter now?

Answer: Only the parts that helped shape the world of today. The rest have vanished without a trace, no matter how significant they seemed at the time.

So, by extension, what actually matters today? Only the things that will have a lasting impact on the world of tomorrow, and tomorrow after that. Take this thought to its logical extreme and you arrive at Dylan's dictum: only the eternal matters.

A story that illustrates why that's wrong

You have just saved the life of a small child. Does it matter?

Oops! The next day he gets hit by a bus. It turns out it didn't matter after all.

No, he doesn't. He lives on until the ripe old age of 92. But then he dies, and in a few hundred years, nobody remembers him or anything he did. It turns out it didn't matter after all.

Let's try again. Before he dies at the age of 92, he invents an incredible new technology for clean, renewable energy. Billions of lives are better because of his invention. But then, several thousand years later, a meteor hits the Earth and wipes out mankind. It turns out it didn't matter after all.

OK, before the meteor hits, mankind launches space ships to the stars, thanks to his invention. Now thousands of years have passed, and the entire galaxy is different because you saved that child. Can you say for sure that your action matters...yet? Or do you have to wait to see if the galaxy is going to sink into a black hole? How long do you have to wait?

The moral
In something finite (like a basketball game), we may believe that the only parts that matter are the parts that contribute to the final outcome.

But eternity has no final outcome. No matter how long you wait, nothing has lasted for all of eternity, yet. So you can never actually decide that something really matters, if you play this game. If only the eternal matters, then nothing ever matters at all.

OK, what do we do now?

The above is an attempt to prove something logically about meaning. That's a tricky game, because meaning is itself inherently beyond logic. Logic tells you that "If this is true, that is true" or "If this happens, that will probably happen." Logic never tells you that "This is good" or "This is bad." Logic has no meaning.

But that doesn't imply that meaning has no logic. Logic tells me that meaning cannot require "the eternal." So that leaves only three possibilities, the way I see it.

  1. There is no such thing as meaning, really.

  2. Meaning takes place strictly in what Eckhart Tolle calls "the Now." After all, he argues, this exact present moment is all that really exists—the past and future exist only in imagination—so where (when) else would you find meaning?

  3. The whole model of eternity as an endless stream of linear time is wrong, and time is quite different from what we think it is. This actually seems quite likely to me, sometimes. But I can't imagine it any more than you can, so I will say no more.


From: Richard Felder
August 17, 2008

I really enjoyed it—partly because of the neat reasoning, and partly because I enjoy the flow of your prose no matter what the content. My own feeling is that there could very well be a higher purpose to life that we can never comprehend, and in the absence of comprehending it, we have to make our own meaning, consciously or unconsciously—whether it's maximizing our pleasure or power or accumulating the most toys or making life as enjoyable as we can for our loved ones or doing good in the world (whatever that may mean to us) or leaving a legacy. I also believe that heavy hitters like Locke and Hume and Kant and Kierkegaard have come up with answers to the meaning question that are presumably based on logic, but I've never made the effort to read and understand their answers.

From: Michelle Williams
August 19, 2008

Like your dad, I always enjoy your writing. :)

I think we humans have quite a dilemma: We're genetically programmed, like pretty much every other living thing, to propagate. Per our genes, that matters. However, we also have brains that think in terms of cause and effect and extended periods of time like "eternity" and so we come up with things like "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff (and it's all small stuff)." (Which actually does seem to say that there are things that matter in life but that they're not what we spend our time on.) "Meaning" is like "God." We each have our own definition because we have no way to prove our definition is the right one. ;)

From: Stephanie Black
August 21, 2009

I just read your essay, i totally agree with all your logic. those are pretty much my exact beliefs on the universe and life. beliefs? or is it lack thereof? i wish i could manufacture some comforting faith for myself but it just doesnt work for me. of course the people with the faith in eternal life with jesus or whatever probably think I am some agent of satan or misguided youth who needs enlightenment. I guess who is to say they are wrong? I only know what goes on in my head, that is my only version of reality. which obviously is not synonymous with truth. but all these values, adjectives, and language are inventions of humans. do animals have these feelings and beliefs? our conjectures are purely that, our thoughts are just another part of a universe beyond comprehension that we are flung into by being born, something we don't get to choose. i don't want to die, but i know i will some day. it freaks me out. i just wanted to contact you because, like most humans, i seek out like-minded people and feel validated when people share my beliefs. That would be cool if we could have a dialogue.

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