Last week I made a last-minute, unscheduled visit to San Diego to be with my dad as he underwent a partial heart bypass (it went extremely well, in case you’re worried).
It was a pretty hectic few days but I made time one afternoon to go down to La Jolla, my favorite beach in pretty much the entire world, and gaze at the waves. I’ve always felt at peace on this long sandy mile, where the salt spray and fine golden dust are blasted by the sun. As it descends from its zenith and settles on a downward arc, mirroring Mount Soldedad’s western slope, the sun turns the ocean cobalt blue. When you’re racing an early-breaking wave and it momentarily blocks out the light with its bulk, the heaving mass of water is a dark violet.
When confronted with mortality, I find that nature is a comforting reminder of something much vaster than one human life. Despite all the flux, the mountains will always stand and the waves will forever tumble, reigning majestically over the temporal human body and spirit.
It took many years to overcome what was instilled in me from an early age. The religious education I had from the ages of 10-14 did a lot of damage beyond imprinting a false answer to the question “What happens when you die,” and I am still in the process of unlearning what I was taught.
Religion has a tremendous hold on humanity, largely thanks to some excellent messaging by its creators. The question of mortality has never been answered by an atheist in a grandiose way that captures the certitude of justice for all of the Old Testament God, the shining paradise for those who believe in Jesus Christ or Muhammad, the absolute oneness of Nirvana.
I think that’s a shame. I understand the fear of death, because for such a long time, I felt it, too — ironic, considering I believed in an afterlife. In our most fearful moments, when we are confronted by the darkness, God or some form of afterlife is comforting.
But as I stood on the shore and watched the waves collapse in an endless cycle of violence, and thought about how close I came to losing my father, I thought how beautiful it was to know that one day he will be dust, and so will I. His dust and mine, yours and others’, will break back down into the most basic elements: to nitrogen that returns to the earth and feeds new people, to carbon that feeds the trees, to oxygen that takes the life-giving form of water.
We’re not sure exactly why — if there even is a reason– but thirteen billion years ago, a tremendous spasm of energy birthed everything that ever was, is, and will be. And somehow, in this universe which is billions of years old, we fragile human beings have roughly 70 or 80 years to live. To run til we are out of breath. To eat until we are full. To have sex until our bodies spasm from pleasure. To make music and dance to it until we are covered in sweat. To laugh until it hurts. To cry until our lungs are heaving and our faces are a mess. To hold the ones we love the most, and listen to the rain falling.
The mathematical odds of you or I being conscious at the present moment, in the entire history of time itself (which for the sake of simplicity we will assume is measured relative to human perception of it, rather than some other beings’) is 5.38461538e-9 — that’s a lot of zeroes behind the decimal. You have a better chance of winning the lottery multiple times or dying in multiple plane crashes than you do of existing now, of being alive right at this moment. That’s so amazing!
Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake by the Inquisition for believing that the Earth was not the center of the Universe, allegedly said “your God is too small” with his dying breath. And yet that dust fell to the earth. Maybe the wind blew his ashes into the sea, where the waves, with their beautiful and endless motion, took him to some far corner of our blue planet.
We’re all dust, and we live on, forever, and ever. Maybe not conscious forever, but it’s precisely the image of dust slipping through our fingers as our time — and mortality — slips away that I find poignant.
As the dust falls, it does not rise to the stars, for it belongs to the earth. Remember that, when you must face the abyss. There really is none. You belong to the earth.