Why writers wield language in the face of our finitude

Our finitude is a constant source of fear, yet it is also one of the things that gives life meaning; the brevity and preciousness of life go hand in hand.

The naturalist, John Muir, put it like this:

This star, our own good earth, made many a successful journey around the heavens ere [hu]man[ity] was made, and whole kingdoms of creatures enjoyed existence and returned to dust ere [hu]man[ity] appeared to claim them. After human beings have also played their part in Creation’s plan, they too may disappear without any general burning or extraordinary commotion whatever.

Longing for forever

In this short span, not only of individual lives, but of our species, we often yearn for more, we long for eternity, for infinity.

In How the universe got its spots, Jana Levin points out that this is desire for the infinite is misplaced:

No infinity has ever been observed in nature. Nor is infinity tolerated in a scientific theory — except we keep assuming the universe itself is infinite.

It wouldn’t be so bad if Einstein hadn’t taught us better. […] Space is not just an abstract notion but a mutable, evolving field. It can begin and end, be born and die. […] The universe had a beginning. There was once nothing and now there is something. What sways me even more, if an ultimate theory of everything is found, a theory beyond Einstein’s, then gravity and matter and energy are all ultimately different expressions of the same thing. We’re all intrinsically of the same substance. The fabric of the universe is just a coherent weave from the same threads that make our bodies. How much more absurd it becomes to believe that the universe, space and time could possibly be infinite when all of us are finite.

She goes on:

Infinity is a demented concept…

Where in the hierarchy of infinity would an infinite universe lie? An infinite universe can host an infinite amount of stuff and an infinite number of events. An infinite number of planets. An infinite number of people on those planets. […]

I welcome the infinite in mathematics, where … it is not absurd nor demented. But I’d be pretty shaken to find the infinite in nature. I don’t feel robbed living my days in the physical with its tender admission of the finite.

Yearning for significance

Photo by MR WONG on Unsplash

This aching for something that is permanent is a subject the physicist and novelist Alan Lightman has also written about extensively. Why is it that we want absolutes and fixed certainties in a universe that is mutable and always in process? Perhaps the longing for the infinite is a yearning for meaning, that we mistake permanence for significance and value.

But we can find meaning without an appeal to eternity as Camus shows in The Myth of Sisyphus.

I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know that meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it. What can a meaning outside my condition mean to me? I can understand only in human terms. What I touch, what resists me — that is what I understand. And these two certainties — my appetite for the absolute and for unity and the impossibility of reducing this world to a rational and reasonable principle — I also know that I cannot reconcile them. What other truth can I admit without lying, without bringing in a hope I lack and which means nothing within the limits of my condition?

[…]

The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. […]

I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death — and I refuse suicide.

Making meaning

Font-de-Gaume Cave

Choosing life is an act of making meaning and when we make a mark on the clay of the universe, we enact that meaning, particularly through art and narrative. In Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, Alan Lightman, writes about visiting the Font-de-Gaume cave in France, where the rock paintings date back to 17000 BC. The art is both beautiful and a testimony to the deep connection of the artists to the natural world they were part of. Lightman muses on our yearning for absolutes and infinity:

Did they believe in the invisible? …they must have looked up the unchanging stars with awe, and desire. In the foothills around the caves, these ancient people buried their dead in sewn garments and surrounded the prone bodies with tools and food for the next life. Was this time and this place where the longing began?

Nearby, someone strikes a match, against regulations, and we all turn in surprise to watch the small fire. Shadows shift on the walls. Then the flame is gone, like these primitive ancestors of eons ago, like all living things, like the material world.

Life is precious and fragile. We get one chance to make it count. Significance is not about living forever or infinity, it can be small marks on the page of time. And neither is significance about money or fame or Twitter followers. What matters is facing our finitude without despair, making small but profound differences, sometimes simply by who we are, sometimes by paying attention and living from abundance.

Elsewhere, in The Accidental Universe, Alan Lightman puts it like this:

If against our wishes and hopes, we are stuck with mortality, does mortality grant a beauty and grandeur all its own? Even though we struggle and howl against the brief flash of our lives, might we find something majestic in that brevity? Could there be a preciousness and value to existence stemming from the very fact of its temporary duration? And I think of the night-blooming cereus, a plant that looks like a leathery weed most of the year. But for one night each summer its flower opens to reveal silky white petals, which encircle yellow lace-like threads, and another whole flower like a tiny sea anemone within the outer flower. By morning, the flower has shrivelled. One night of the year, as delicate and fleeting as a life in the universe.

Our one precious, fragile life can be an act of being defined by others or an act of creation; what Camus calls his ‘revolt, freedom and passion’. The latter is brave, but it’s also an uncertain road. The activist, Rebecca Solnit, in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, writes:

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. Three years ago I was giving a workshop in the Rockies. A student came in bearing a quote from what she said was the pre-Socratic philosopher Meno. It read, “How will you go about finding that thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you?” I copied it down, and it has stayed with me since. […] The question she carried struck me as the basic tactical question in life. The things we want are transformative, and we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation. Love, wisdom, grace, inspiration — how do you go about finding these things that are in some ways about extending the boundaries of the self into unknown territory, about becoming someone else?

We have have to be prepared to let go, to lose ourselves in creativity, to make ourselves vulnerable to what life offers, to allow ourselves to be surprised and to take more delight in the path and the process than in any fixed outcome.

When we choose to throw off the stories we’ve been told and set out with warm and generous hearts, epiphany, even if it doesn’t look as we’d expected it to, awaits.

And when, as writers, we wield language and story with courage and generosity, then we have the mightiest tool for wrestling meaning from reality. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Toni Morrison says:

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

As a writer, what language will you use, what story will measure your life?

Becoming a different story

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Editor, author, feminist & part-time nomad. Helping others develop their writing life and practice. Blog @ https://janfortune.com/