One of my closest friends and I spent one last day together before he left for grad school. We parked the car next to the ocean and watched the sun disappear, like it was signaling the end of a chapter in our friendship. We were listening to Daft Punk on the car stereo, with the rhythm of crashing waves as the backdrop. Suddenly my friend said to me, “The ocean made me uncomfortable for a long time. I actually got used it only recently.” Then he went silent.
He looked as if he wasn’t sure that he wanted to let the next words come out of his mouth, but eventually he did.
It was a story from his childhood, about a day at the beach in the Philippines where he grew up. He went swimming a little too far from the shore, and got caught in a dangerous riptide.
He was eventually saved by a local, but afterwards he found out that his uncle, who had swum out to save him, had drowned. He was devastated, and the horror of that day seemed to live vividly in his mind. I’m not sure why he decided to tell me that story at that moment. Maybe it was the finality of the day lingering in the back of his mind. But it got me thinking, and it took me, almost comically, far away.
I imagined cosmic dust. On a unassuming blue rock, floating in a infinite sea of darkness, this cosmic dust was arranged into life. Dust that can experience itself. Then, maybe for the first time, dust evolved into something that could look up and contemplate the cosmic ocean where it came from.
Nothing reflected back.
I can imagine how scary it must have been. When I was little, I got a gut-wrenching feeling every time I thought about our planet spinning in blackness, like that empty void was pushing down, trying to crush me.
I thought about our journey. An odyssey full of tension caused by consciousness existing inside an indifferent universe. For as long as we’ve existed, we tried to fight back against the horrible void by desperately searching for meaning, in any way we could.
But we’re constantly reminded of the void, pressing down on us. It always creeps back in, through the tedium of our daily lives and stories of tragedy.
My friend’s story hit me harder than most because it revealed the void so plainly. A man swimming into the maw of an uncaring ocean, drowning while trying to save another life. The universe didn’t care who he was, how many people loved him, or how noble his actions were. Just a collection of particles following a set of physical laws.
It’s almost unbearably absurd.
We collectively have to go a little crazy just to exist. Insanity is the true universal birthright.
All these thoughts kept on swirling in my mind while my friend and I sat in the car, getting lost in our heads. Then I looked out of the car again.
I watched the smoldering sun melting into the horizon, like ice cream made of fire. Remnants of daylight broke through the sprawling clouds, its edges tinged orange and red. It took my breath away.
I looked beside me, to one of my closest friends and felt a mix of emotions. Appreciation, for being so lucky to have known him at all. Sadness, because I knew this was probably the last time we would be able to hang out together like this (I hope I wasn’t creeping him out right then.)
How do I reconcile deeply human experiences like these? It feels more real to me than anything else. Does the lack of meaning in the universe render my personal experiences, thoughts, feelings, and emotions equally meaningless?
I don’t think so.
To me, the empty canvas that we’re born into isn’t an end. It means we’re free to paint it however we want. This is where we can begin.
The only way to deal with an indifferent universe is to look deep into our unique human experiences and create our own meaning, so that our very existence transcends the void. Creating meaning is the most human thing that ever existed. It’s how we can be as human as possible.
If you think about everything this way, the immensity of the universe only accentuates our existence.
We all found each other in the never-ending expanse of space by pure chance. We all found each other, on this unimaginably tiny point of light. We can create, and share our own meaning with each other, even in the short time we have to exist. We’re the beginning and the end – a self-sustained loop.
Thinking from this perspective makes even the most mundane parts of life insanely vivid. It makes moments like last goodbyes among friends even more meaningful.
So, what about my friend’s uncle?
I don’t know how he lived, but I do know how he died. He died fighting against the current of indifference. In that moment, he was risking his life to save another. He put his entire being into the blank canvas that he was born into, and created meaning out of a meaningless void.
This legacy lives on through my friend. Witnessing an act so profoundly human, deeply shaped the kind of person my friend wanted to be, and the kind of career path that he wanted to pursue. It became a powerful motivator to always strive to be someone of value to others – to take care of people who need it.
That’s something powerful, and it’s something that every single human being can do. We can all push back against indifference.
In the end, it’s the only thing that matters.
Thanks to my friend for letting me write and share something so personal. Let’s hang out again real soon.