One of the things that gives us a sense of purpose is what we accomplish. People like to feel as if they are making a difference, as if something they’ve done has in some way improved the world. If all you do is dig holes and fill them in again you will become demoralized. It is sometimes said that retirement is not always such a good thing: that people who retire die sooner because they start to feel as if their lives have no purpose any more. Of course, it might be the reason retired people tend to die more often than non-retired people is simply because most retired people belong to an age bracket where death is more likely.
In any case, I can understand the sense of futility sometimes. As a writer, I produce a certain number of words every day. In the old days, I could see how much I’d written because I’d end up with a nice stack of paper by the end of it. Every day, I would add ten pages to a novel, and the stack would get a little higher. At the end of the week, it would be 50 pages higher. A 350-page novel is a nice stack of paper. I know, that’s kind of pathetic, getting excited about a pile of paper, but you take what you can get. And I don’t even get that anymore.
Now I do it all on a computer and I never print anything out. So I don’t even get stacks of paper. And at the end of a day, my computer looks exactly like it did when I sat down in the morning. After a week, a month, a year—it hasn’t changed at all. I can’t see anything that I produce. And most of what I write ends up on the internet, or as ebooks. There is no physical evidence that I exist.
Human beings need a sense of purpose. We like to see that we have accomplished something. But just about everything we do is ephemeral. Every day, I need to take a shower. But the one I took yesterday is used up within twenty-four hours. I have to brush my teeth again. No matter what I have for breakfast, by lunch I am hungry.
Every week I have to do laundry, rewashing the same clothes over and over. And then, sooner or later, I have to go out and buy new clothes because the ones I have fall apart: my socks get holes in them, the shirts fade and rip, and so on.
And every evening I have to plug in my Nissan Leaf; the charge I gave it yesterday is all used up. Our old van periodically needs an oil change or new tires. More often than seems reasonable, I have to snake the sewer line either because of the roots that get into it from the beautiful tree in my front yard, or because one of the children or their friends flushes something they shouldn’t. And speaking of trees, every year I have to rake leaves.
Entropy is a fact of life. And it is bigger than just clogged drains and flat tires. In the larger sphere of human affairs and civilization, it rears its ugly head. Nothing that is human endures.
The Babylonian empire covered about 8000 square miles; it lasted from 626 to 539 BC; only 87 years.
The Persian Empire that followed covered 3.28 million square miles and endured from 550-330 BC. About 220 years.
The Greek Empire founded by Alexander covered about 2 million square miles at its largest and endured from 336 to 323, barely 13 years; it fell apart immediately after Alexander died and was parceled out to four of his generals.
The Roman Empire covered 1.69 million square miles and lasted about 1480 years, from its origins in 27 BC until its last remnants crumbled in 1453 AD when Moslems conquered Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul.
The British Empire was the largest empire in world history. In 1938 it covered a bit more than 13 million square miles: more than 22 percent of the world’s landmass. But it lasted less than 400 years, fading away by1947 when India gained its independence after the end of World War II. It used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire. But then the British empire itself set.
The words of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelly apply not just to empires, of course, but serve as a reminder regarding human existence in its entirety:
I met a traveller from an antique land,Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stoneStand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,Tell that its sculptor well those passions readWhich yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;And on the pedestal, these words appear:My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!Nothing beside remains. Round the decayOf that colossal Wreck, boundless and bareThe lone and level sands stretch far away.”