Programmed Oblivion

No matter how hard we attempt to position humanity as a special gift to the universe, we’re sometimes forced to remember we’re eventually all forgotten. Regardless how noble or ignoble our acts, no matter what damage we do or what monuments we build; leaving aside how generous or selfish we are, we’re eventually forgotten. The sphere in which we matter is small from the start and shrinks over time, eventually becoming invisible even to the most powerful electron microscopes. The power of the most advanced technology cannot peer backward in real-time, witnessing lost time in the present. Nothing we do can still the march of time and the way it erases our marks. We fade into oblivion.

If any of us have a lasting impact in any way, it’s due to accidents of time and nature and civilization. Most of us, though, have no lasting impact. We’re lost to history three our four generations hence; far less if we leave no progeny to further sully the planet. Yet we seem to think our presence on the planet matters. We seem to think the universe is our permanent playground, an unfolding tapestry of our own making. It’s not. Like the dinosaurs, humanity one day will be gone and the only impact will be on the highly-evolved creatures—perhaps mollusks or an as-yet-unknown breed of reindeer or brilliant bacteria—who take our place, studying the impact humans collectively made on the surface of the planet we left in such disarray.

The only thing preventing us all from committing mass suicide is the fact that we have very brief, but extremely deep, impacts on others of our species. Were it not for the temporary pain our self-imposed extinction would cause during its implementation, we would rid the planet and ourselves of the agony our existence causes.  Mass suicides on a scale sufficient to rid the planet of the scourge of humanity are almost unimaginable, though. From what little I’ve read on the subject, the largest mass suicides seem to peak at around 1,000 people. While that’s a respectable number in anyone’s book, it pales in comparison to the seven billion, more or less, necessary to cleanse the earth of the disease that takes the form of humanity. I should say that it’s not the fact that our memories soon will become vaporous mist that urges us to suicide; it’s the fact that our collective impact on the world in which we live is decidedly negative and abusive.

I realize, of course, that this entire post is about as bleak and dismal and utterly gloomy as can be. It’s just the reflection of my mood at the moment. I do not feel much like being an apologist for humanity this morning. Despite our collective efforts to draw upon and, ostensibly, emulate the thoughts and deeds and moral teachings of Jesus and Buddha and Confucius and others, we invariably fail. One might, if one were an optimist, look upon our ongoing inadequate efforts as evidence of the goodness at the core of humanity. Or, if one were not quite as forgiving of humankind, one might judge our failed efforts as confirmation of our innate inadequacy.

Depending on the day of the week and factors over which I seem to have little control, I bounce between those perspectives. Perhaps the problem with my perspectives is that they are never crisp and clear. I understand and argue with myself over which one is more compelling. I never win the argument, but neither do I lose it. It’s always a draw, and a deeply unsatisfying one at that. I always leave it unresolved. Even reading the words of Plato and Socrates and Aristotle and other philosophers leaves me both confused and certain. Not that I’ve read much of any of them lately. Actually, I’ve read very little lately. I’ve felt a little like “what’s the use?” No argument seems sufficient to sway my opinions or beliefs one way or another.

Speaking of being forgotten…or not. What does the fact that we remember the philosophies of Plato and Socrates and Aristotle and Confucius and Jesus and Buddha mean? Are their memories simply accidents of time and nature? Were they just ordinary folks whose thoughts, either through luck or eternal punishment, have been etched into our collective memories?

None of this rambling is especially coherent. I will try to blame chemo-fog for both my depressing mood and my inability to sufficiently articulate my thoughts this morning. Chemo-brain or chemo-fog or whatever one chooses to call it really is a thing. Even though it’s been a week (or has it been two?) since I completed my chemo treatments, I still feel them. My mind is soft and spongy, as it if absorbs information but then allows it to flow throughout my brain in random fashion, never coming back together in cohesive comprehension. I am afraid my mind may never recover from being muddled. I can’t envision accepting that for long.

Speaking of progeny, as I was at some point, the fact that I have none means I will be forgotten far more quickly than will members of my cohort who have helped populate the planet. Ten or twenty years after my death (and that’s a generous extension of reality, I think), my existence will simply not have mattered. It will register only on old census records.

I spent some time not terribly long ago looking for evidence of my impact on previous employers, organizations for which I held CEO and CEO-equivalent positions. Not surprisingly, in some cases there was no evidence at all of my existence. In others, what little evidence there was seemed (and perhaps was) indicative of how little value I had to the organization. Admittedly, this search was online, not in official hard-copy records, but aren’t all meaningful records now kept online, electronically? I’m not complaining about my disappearance, I’m only commenting that my point about our being forgotten is being borne out even as we wither. I suppose it’s unintentional erasure (though perhaps it’s not unintentional). Our impacts, or lack thereof, on the lives of those around us are subject to societal or institutional amnesia. Not only are our accomplishments during various parts of our lives allowed to turn to invisible vapor over time, the very fact that we existed is expunged from the human record as the timeline between then and now gets longer and longer.

I once wrote a piece of fiction (and it may not have been long ago, but time is one of those things my mind seems incapable of measuring, of late) that included something to the effect that a census record revealed the existence of someone years earlier, but nothing else existed to suggest the individual mattered in any way.  As I wrote the piece, tears welled up in my eyes. Here I was, writing about a nonexistent person whose life seemed not to have mattered, and I got emotional about him. There’s something about a person not mattering that bothers me, obviously. Someone forgotten, or never even remembered, even an imaginary someone, is painful.  Where the hell is this going? Nowhere, I suspect. I’ve been writing for too long this morning to have reached the conclusion that none of it mattered, but that’s exactly the conclusion I cannot help but reach. If nothing else, I’ve exercised my fingers. Not that it matters.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Programmed Oblivion

  1. Cheryl, through your children and grandchildren, you have a longer span during which your memory will matter than many, including me. But, if I’m right, one day you’ll join the billions before you who have disappeared, never to be remembered. I once was enamored of the concept that we die twice, once when life leaves our body and once when our name is spoken for the last time. It’s painful to think that, in my case, the two might occur simultaneously.

  2. Hopester says:

    Not being remembered is my Achilles Heel. I keep telling myself that is my ego talking. I really don’t know one way or another. But I hate the thought of fading into oblivion. Okay. That must be my ego talking. I don’t know. I’ll stop typing now.

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