For as long as I can remember, it’s been my duty to leave the world better off than it was when I found it.
This idealism is part and parcel of being born in the age of the internet: since we have more access to information at our fingertips than our forefathers probably had in their entire lifetime, it would be selfish to not act on what we know. But it’s also something ingrained in me as a (burnt-out) child prodigy who was made to believe that my smarts alone could save the world, and as a graduate of a Jesuit university that underscored the power of privilege in being a man for others.
Sometimes, these sentiments hint at a raging savior complex but I know that at the heart of them all is a noble pursuit, a necessary cause. We live in particularly tumultuous times characterized by a global outbreak, an economic recession, and the distortion of truth. Not the easiest opponents to take down, which is why I’ve endlessly pushed myself to my breaking point and pieced myself back together for the past four years.
I took the most pragmatic and flexible college program I could think of and balanced it out with social involvement and student leadership in multiple internships and orgs. Once I started writing on the side, I took it upon myself to shed light on the pressing issues of our time and propose new ways of thinking.
I’ve painstakingly mapped out the next five years of my life and the destination is concrete, lasting change. No more room for mistakes. After all, I thought this was the only way. Who knew that all it took to momentarily steer me off course was a picture of space?
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Last July 12th, NASA released the first-ever pictures taken from the James Webb Space Telescope. These five stunning photographs captured the birth of stars in galaxies from as old as 13 billion years ago. Not bad for an attempt to make sense of the vastness of our universe. While normal people reacted by sharing the news on Instagram or changing their lockscreen, I responded by sending myself down an existential spiral I have yet to fully escape.
Kurzgesagt says poignantly in a video on optimistic nihilism (more on that later): “We learned [in school] that we live on a moist speck of dust moving around a medium-sized star in a quiet region of one arm of an average galaxy, which is part of a galaxy group that we will never leave.” This fact isn’t exactly top-of-mind to me: being reminded of this truth during this particular stage in my life was enough to send me into a state of disillusionment and despair.
If I am a small speck of dust in a world whose relative size is comparable to a single grain of sand, then what have I been working at breakneck speed for? What exactly is it I’m striving towards, and who am I to change the cosmic order?
Not too long ago, I watched Jobu Tupaki, the main antagonist of Everything Everywhere All At Once, grapple with the same dilemma. As a side effect of several failed experiments, she has the power to experience all versions of reality at the same time. This hyper-awareness of the universe’s magnitude (and our insignificance in comparison) is what drives her to the conclusion that nothing matters.
Upon this realization, she chooses to submit herself to the Everything Bagel, a confection of mass destruction that will cause the world as she knows it to collapse on itself. By succumbing to the black hole, she relinquishes total control of her life—but she won’t do this alone. (Misery loves company, after all.) Upon finding out that her mother from another universe, the film’s protagonist Evelyn Wang, can access multiverses like she can, Jobu is determined to drag her into the void with her.
If our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters.
At first, it’s hard to have faith that Evelyn can resist the offer. From the start of the film, her sole personality trait is actively hating her life. She hates her job and the financial upkeep it requires; she hates her husband and his lack of conviction, and her father who she still wants to please so desperately despite the generational trauma he’s passed on to her. Even the overbearing variation of ‘love’ she harbors for her daughter can be misconstrued as hatred. But what sets her apart from Jobu is that while she has stared into the many ways her life has unfolded and the nothingness that it implies, she chose to look at it differently.
That’s what it all boils down to, in the end: if nothing matters, then the only thing that can matter is what you choose. This is optimistic nihilism.
As Kurzgesagt says in their aforementioned video on the subject: “If our life is all we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters.” If the universe is not governed by a predetermined set of principles, we get to decide how we want to live. If our time here has no explicit purpose, we can spend our entire lives finding out why we were put on this particular planet. One day, everything the human race has fought to achieve will have been for nothing. But until then, we are here and the world is beautiful and it’s ours to unravel.
This isn’t meant, of course, to encourage a unethical, tearaway approach to life. Such as the multiverse in EEAAO suggests, even a single decision can create ripples in human lives, irreparably altering their reality. Spreading the word about a rat under a chef’s hat can strip someone of their livelihood just as endless test runs on loved ones could breed a fatalistic monster determined to destroy all mankind.
What I’m trying to say is that while this world is plagued by corruption and greed and injustice, it’s this same world that sparks meaningful connections and nurtures our compassion and creativity. Yes, we can suffer intense humiliation in life, but no one’s keeping score. We will make mistakes with seemingly irreversible consequences but we will emerge from them stronger and wiser. We will hurt and be hurt by the ones we love but we have the unique opportunity to heal together.
When I look back at my last four years of college, I can say I was happy. Fulfilled, definitely. But I stuck to what I knew would work, made pro-con lists for even the most low-stakes decisions, and somehow expected I could plan my way through the rest of my life. Maybe this rigidity is what’s keeping me from seeing the richness of life’s many possibilities. Accepting my insignificance means building an idea from the ground up with no guarantee of success, going out of my way to meet new people, or trying out a talent I always deemed too ‘impractical’ to fit in my schedule. Because when we say ‘nothing matters’, it really just means ‘everything is possible’.
While this world is plagued by corruption and greed and injustice, it’s this same world that sparks meaningful connections and nurtures our compassion and creativity.
Come to think of it, if I manage to do all these things, maybe I would have fulfilled my purpose in some way. The world will be better off than when I found it, but not necessarily because I invented or discovered or did something that will outlive all succeeding generations.
The world will be better off simply because I was here and I truly enjoyed my stay.