Gravity is one of the most mysterious phenomena in the universe, and yet we know so much about it. Things are held to the surface of the earth not because of a force, but because the earth is much bigger than the stuff on it. Objects warp the space they are in and objects travel along the curves of that space towards the center of the bigger object. It’s like putting a marble in a funnel or what happens if a much larger person sits next to you on a mattress. The point is that our very presence as physical objects warps the space around us.
We all bend space and time physically and psychically in very tangible and literal ways. Our interactions with others warp their lives in both positive and negative ways. Love, anger, joy – these experiences with each other change our approach to the world and some people like David Bowie, Mother Theresa, or even Donald Trump seem to take up more space and maintain a stronger pull of this gravity around them. So when they die, the space left behind seems to be bigger.
When we die, we create a hole in space and time. Those ripples we have created in the experience of others and in the artifacts of our lives still exist. But the object people expect at the source of all of that stuff is no longer there. What’s left is the outline of a presence, a ghost, and that’s frightening. Often the strength of the relationship we have with that missing person determines the size of the hole in our lives.
I hold the idea that we do not exist in any form other than these ripples, artifacts, and memories after we die. I used to hold on to the idea of an eternal soul, but noy any more. There is no soul that meets God who will judge its fitness for a heavenly realm. We won’t meet past relatives, rock stars, and pets. After we die, we aren’t asleep, we won’t dream, and will never wake up.
Instead, we persist only as these waves dancing through space and time in the memories of others. I used to find this idea terrifying, empty, and horribly depressing. If I am not fundamentally a soul seeking its source in God, what purpose is there for living? But I failed to ask the question, Why do I need an ultimate purpose to be happy?
This isn’t to say I don’t have purposes. I have important functions in the world to my kids, my partner, parents, siblings, job, service, and even my dog. These are all relationships and roles I keep because they make me happy and I think I can help them be happier too. After all, for Epicurus, happiness was rooted in the pursuit of virtue and love through friendship.
Over the past year I have learned to live without a soul or an ultimate purpose. In the process I’ve realized just how important living is. What I do here and now determines the kind of ripples through space and time I will leave behind after I die. Will I contribute to the happiness of those I encounter, or will I participate in their suffering. Every choice I make is pregnant with the binary of happiness or suffering. Life has distilled into this one algorithm. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. It has given me the clearest way to determine my own happiness, and it works.