Monday, January 17, 2022

Love Letters to My Life #43: Cosmic Insignificance

(Book details at the end of article)

(We know the day we were born, but most of us do not know the day we will die. This love letter to my life is written on the day I've designated as my death day: the 17th of every month, and reminds me to be grateful for my joy-filled life. Once a year I get to celebrate both my birth and death days on the same day. Joyce Wycoff)

Death Day in another new year … a double whammy for contemplation of life and the future. Thoughts swirl around what to do with my life and how much time I actually have left to do something with. Of course, no one knows: the actuarial charts peg my life expectancy at 99; Oliver Burkeman spells it out in weeks in his book 4000 Weeks, Time Management for Mortals. 

While I know the end could come anytime, today or that faraway 99, I choose to conceptually work with 15 years, 780 weeks. I’ve spent my fair share of the past 76 years learning how to manage my time, shooting for that illusive star of productivity. Burkeman offers an interesting bone to chew on … cosmic insignificance. This concept comes in Chapter 13 of his book and popular blogger Tim Ferriss chose to publish Burkeman reading this chapter in case you would like to hear it.

In a nutshell, Burkeman sets up the insignificance of humans by reducing the 6,000 years of human culture into 60 100-year lifetimes, reminding us that what we think of as the ancientness of our culture is a mere wisp of smoke, 60 lifetimes, in the billions of years timeframe of the Universe. While we’ve had amazing, transcendent humans who have changed life as we know it … the Einsteins, Mozarts, daVincis, Galileo … there have only been a few handfuls of them and even they did not make a dent in the Universe, so regardless of what the rest of us do, it will be, on the cosmic scale, insignificant.

This could be a downer making us feel powerless; however, Burkeman sees this as a great liberation. It’s not our problem, nor even within our power, to save the world, leave a legacy that will ring down the halls of time, or build anything physical that will stand for eternity. What we can do is live a life which engages our passions, feels meaningful to us and serves others and ourselves.

Burkeman builds a lot of this philosophy of cosmic insignificance on the pandemic which has brought us what he calls The Great Pause, a worldwide shift in perspective and possibility. Beyond Covid’s shocking world wide death toll which has already surpassed the death rate of the Crusades, the Hundred Years’ War, the Korean War, and approaches the death toll of the Napoleonic Wars, it shifted our perceptions, at least temporarily. We saw blue skies over polluted cities, experienced the shift of time spent at the office to time spent at home, and understood in a new way our interdependence on each other.

For me, and probably many of us, Covid highlighted our mortality and prompted our thinking about what to do with our finite gift of time. I have spent the past 15 years since Richard’s death exploring and learning more about the world and myself, reveling in a previously unknown capacity for making art and combining it with words. 

However, there has been an underlying restlessness because these efforts were reaching few people … perhaps I should be doing something more substantial, something that would serve more people, more directly. Maybe I should be more connected to community or feed the starving children somewhere, follow a truly worthwhile purpose.

Burkeman proposes this type of thinking as a form of grandiosity, a belief in a cosmically significant Life Purpose which the Universe is waiting for us to discover and fulfill. “Which is why,” Burkeman states, “it’s useful to begin this last stage of our journey with a blunt but unexpectedly liberating truth: that what you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much—and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less.”

Reminding us that each of is unique and will have our own unique definitions of what constitutes a meaningful life, Burkeman quotes the philosopher Iddo Landau: “We do not disapprove of a chair because it cannot be used to boil water for a nice cup of tea.” I love that.

Bringing this to a bottomline: As a cosmically insignificant resident on this glorious planet, I have the freedom to define and develop my own concept of what a meaningful life looks like.

About Corona Wisdom book: In early 1920 as Covid was beginning its creep across the globe, I created an almost-daily record in art and words about the time. It is a 120 page, hard-back, full color book available for $45 including postage in the US. For more information, please email

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