We are not special

Let’s face it. We are not special. We like to think we are, that our goals, rants, aspirations, and struggles really matter. But we are stardust, as Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us.  Sounds poetic but it is also true. We are made up of molecules constructed from the crucibles of stars from deep space. When these stars exploded, they ejected their elements, becoming building blocks upon which increasingly heavier elements could be formed and finally combining with one another to form matter: new stars, planets – and, yes, little us too.

Look at Earth, our home. A pale dot amidst billions and trillions of other planets out there. A mote of dust, as the late Carl Sagan remarked. And if the entire 4.6 billion years of Earth’s history was condensed into a 24-hour clock, humanity’s history would emerge only less than two minutes before midnight. That is how insignificant we are compared to the grand scheme of the universe. Our 80-or-so years of life on Earth is but a negligible fraction of time.

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” – Carl Sagan, in his 1994 book, “The Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.”

But we like to be extraordinary. Today’s sages tell us to. They feed upon our narcissism that yearns to be extraordinary, to do the extraordinary, and to live extraordinary lives. But the advice to be extraordinary is itself contradictory. If everyone was extraordinary, then no one, by definition, would be extraordinary because no one would stand out from the rest.

So, yes, we are not special.

But that should not depress us. Instead, it should drive us to appreciate that our time on Earth is very short and finite. We may not be special, that on the scale of the universe, we are insignificant and our lives a fleeting moment in history, but this does not mean our lives should not matter. The idea that we are not special should humble us. It should challenge us to re-orientate our lives to make it count with what little time we have left, that our lives will make a significant impact on those around us. Because we have lived, others have been changed and have benefited.

So, what then is our purpose in life? What is our legacy, our immortality project? Our life’s purpose is a compass that helps us to distinguish between the important, trivial, and irrelevant in our lives. It separates the wheat from the chaff. It distinguishes between struggles and aspirations that matter, those that deserve our full energy, attention, time, and money and those that we should ignore or at least, emphasize less. Our purpose in life liberates we because it provides us guidance, that we are dedicating our lives on goals or pursuits more noble than ourselves.

But it is not all psychology and pep talk. Having a strong purpose in life cascades down to even at a biological level. A 2013 study by Steve Cole from the University of California found that people with more hedonic lifestyles had genetic expressions similar to those seen in people suffering from loneliness and stress, compared to those with people choosing more eudemonic lifestyle, a life driven beyond self-gratification. And brain scans of people with a higher eudemonic lifestyle showed lower stress response than those with lesser eudemonic lifestyle. In other words, people with long term life purpose live longer and are healthier.

But thinking about our purpose in life, let alone setting one, is hard. It is scary – and as blogger Mark Manson wrote in his book ”The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck”, we don’t do it because we have no clue what we are doing.

The late Steve R. Covey in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” probably said it best on how we can find our purpose in life: “[Imagine attending your own funeral] … What would you like each of the speakers to say about you and your life? … What character would you like them to have seen in you? What contributions, what achievements would you want them to remember? … What difference would you like to have made in [people’s] lives?”

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson.

Our deaths are inevitable, but rather than dreading it, our deaths should warn us of wasting our lives. But change is difficult and fraught with pain, suffering, and struggles. Athletics, for instance, are willing to bear the tedium and pain of training because they know the outcome of their struggles is becoming fitter, stronger, and faster. No one likes pain, but people are willing to face and endure it provided the outcome is worthwhile and fulfills their purpose in life.  Mark Manson says it best: our self-worth isn’t a measure of how we feel about our positive experiences but about how we feel about our negative experiences. Pain is telling us to pay attention and to learn. Our pain, if we respond correctly and are willing to learn, initiates meaningful change. Trying to pursue a pain-free life is instead foolish because it avoids learning and meaningful change, and it leads to inconsequential and perhaps even selfish, self-indulgent lives.

Achieving the extraordinary is then not a target by itself but an outcome, perhaps even by accident, due to our pursuit of our aspirations. We may dedicate our lives in helping the poor, for instance, and our efforts might gain us recognition, awards, and even a celebrity-like status, but they are an outcome, not the goal, of our purpose.

Why am I here? (c) freshideas @ fotolia.com

But what characterizes a meaningful life purpose? Obviously, identifying one’s purpose in life is highly specific to individuals. Mark Manson however offers that a person’s purpose in life should encompass good values, and such values are those that are reality-based, socially-constructive, and immediate and controllable. Honesty is an example of a good value, says Mark, because it is real, it benefits others, and it is under our control, whereas popularity isn’t because it is out of our control (i.e., we need to convince others to like us), may not be real because people may not really see us like we want them to, and being popular is, well, selfish, indulgent, and does little to help others.

Alfred Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the boring bits cut out.” So, if our lives were to be made into a TV drama, what would our story be, after all the boring, doldrums bits of our lives cut out? Did our lives matter?

References

  1. Burrell, T. 2017. Why am I here? New Scientist. 28 January 2017. p. 30-33.
  2. Fredrickson, B.L., Grewen, K.M. Coffey, K.A., Algoe, S.B., Firestine, AM., Arevalo, J.M.G., Ma, J., and Cole, S.W. 2013. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110, no. 33: 13684-13689. [link]
  3. Manson, M. 2016. The subtle art of not giving a f*ck. A counterintuitive approach to living a good life. New York: HarperOne.
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Comments

  1. The most important missing link is the one between Humans and the rest of creation on Earth. I am not denying evolution or adaptation entirely – but I certainly doubt that the direction of evolution is a purely unguided random event. Similarity in DNA between humans and say an earthworm is not evidence that we evolved from them. The proof is the eye of the squid and eye of humans are similar but are according to science not linked.

    • What kind of link would you expect to find between Humans and rest of creation? Why lump the whole “creation” together and create a separate group just for Humans? That squid and human eye is “vastly different” is because we share a very remote common ancestor. Well, whether one believes or disbelieves would depend on empirical evidence, not the degree to which the evidence makes us comfortable or uncomfortable.

      • The eye of the squid and that of humans are NOT vastly different and optically do NOT share a common ancestor- this is known as convergent evolution. An example that similarity between species is not due to one evolving from the other. Your unwillingness to consider random evolution as being statistically unlikely is blinding you to some of the evidence.

        • I didn’t mention or write about the mechanism of evolution. It is your presumption. Even so, so what if squid and humans are similar? Or we are very similar with other animals, be it from the eye or other parts of the body. How is that proof that humans are special from them? I would think it is the opposite, that we are not special since we all are so similar with one another.

          Look, you are obviously upset that I wrote that we humans are not that special, or at least not as special as you would like. Talk to other religious people, they would be upset with me too. But instead of humans being special, they may say it is the cattle that is super special and unique. Or perhaps: the cats, goats, snakes, dogs, … (I am not making this list up). And they too would have their reasons, just as you do, in why these animals (not humans) are super special, only their reasons would also be different than yours — or perhaps not, since their reasons have all got to do with religion, as yours.

          If you are still upset, ok, humans can make computers and Facebook, whereas animals cannot. So, humans are very special indeed. Happy?

  2. The article is contradictory – if Earth is the only place with life in the universe then by definition this is “special”. Perhaps you have conflated “insignificant” with the word ‘special’.

    We humans and Earth ARE special and unique, but also insignificant in comparison to the mighty universe. There is no direct evidence of Humans being descended from any creature on Earth – this missing link is still “missing”……

    • You are assuming of course that Earth is the only planet that has intelligent life…and there is nothing wrong equating “insignificant” with “not special”. This was what my article was about — our place in the grand scheme of things, and how we look at ourselves. No where did I talk about comparing human physical traits or structure to other creatures, alien or otherwise. If the latter, then, yes, we are special because we possess unique/different characteristics than, say, a worm. That said, I could also say “earthworms are special and unique”.

      And there is no “missing link”. This is unfortunately a popular misconception that evolution is a linear process, like a famous (and wrong) picture that shows a fish on the far left, then a salamander or something like that, then as you read increasingly to the right, there is the Neanderthal, then finally the modern human. Human evolution is not like movie scenes in a reel of a film.

      • Thank you for yout reply. I have a few comments. Being unique in a way that does not exist in any organism except humans is “special”. A simple test is we humans can override out instincts and commit suicide as we have a consciousness and conscience . This is evidence of our uniqueness.

        You state evolution is not linear and there is no missing link….. there is no evidence for this claim and it is unscientific claim with no foundation. Denying a missing link is a furtive desire to wish evolution to be a random event which statisticslly is improbable to the point of being impossible.

        • Even animals can act in ways that surprise us because they are in contrast with our understanding of animal cognition. Chimps, for example, can act in altruistic behavior to aid others even at their own expense. And animals can suffer from mental stress too and have shown to sacrifice their lives — but whether they intended to kill themselves remains to be seen.

          No, my understanding of evolution is not wrong, but based on main stream science. Evolution, as I said is not like a reel of film (or ladder) where an ape morphs into a human. Evolution is like a tree branch, where each new species is a new branch, where some species share a common ancestor (which may still exist at the same time as the new species). This is why chimps still exist today, together with humans.

          And fossils we find are “snapshots” of the past, but when assembled together give an overview of an evolutionary history of species. So yes, there are species yet to find between these “snapshots”, and if that is what you mean, then, yes, there are yet missing links to find, but each time we find these “missing links”, they strengthen rather than damage our understanding of evolution.

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