While meditating recently, I watched a squirrel—scooting up and down my friend the River Birch, tail all a-twitch, pausing here and there—and it made me wonder whether my life is any more meaningful than the squirrel’s. Not in an “Earth-centric, we all have meaning kind of way,” but in an “Are humans fooling themselves—am I fooling myself—into thinking our lives have a purpose?”
We mostly run around like squirrels: collecting nuts, eating nuts, hiding nuts, digging up our nuts, rehiding our nuts, defending our nuts, complaining loudly when someone takes our nuts, mating occasionally (if we’re lucky), gathering more nuts, and then dying—probably not by being run over by a car (but perhaps), and most likely not being eaten by a fox or hawk, but the end result is the same.
Marcus Aurelius perhaps said it best in his Meditations:1
“Observe, in short, how transient and trivial is all mortal life; yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice or ashes.”
That’s as harsh a reminder as one could get that we’re nothing special, that our lives are fleeting—which might not be a bad message to counter our arrogant, god-like tendencies—but still doesn’t feel very good.
However, as I consider our differences with squirrels, I do think at least at this moment in history, humans have an almost infinite opportunity to create meaningful lives: fighting new fossil fuel infrastructure; advocating for degrowth (of the economic and population varieties); fighting the plastification of the world; getting PFAS and other toxins out of production; banning nuclear weapons; conserving lands and species; and on and on.2
Any of these fights are meaningful and transform one’s life from a nut-gathering one to something more. Even if they feel like Sisyphusian tasks, even if failure is all but guaranteed. Though of course nothing is ever guaranteed. In the early pages of Commanding Hope, Thomas Homer-Dixon describes the quest of one woman to fight nuclear proliferation. She started all by herself, motivated by a fear that nuclear testing was causing childhood cancers in her community and around the world. After finding a first ally, they then circulated a petition calling all the local clergy to ask them for their help in getting it signed—and getting over 2,000 signatures in the process (a lot, as Homer-Dixon notes, in the days before the Internet). Even as she got hate mail and death threats, and was branded a communist for her activism, her persistence paid off, with May eventually mobilizing thousands of others to fight nuclear weapons and even joining with 17 Nobel Laureates to sue the governments of the U.S., the U.K. and the Soviet Union to end atmospheric testing.
Ultimately, we’re at a moment of deep and prolonged siege on Gaia (I hate to use militaristic metaphors but what better explains our treatment of Earth?). So joining the resistance brings instant meaning to one’s life. In both scenarios, ultimately your life and wellbeing depend on this. Sure, you could avoid the conflict, collaborate with the occupiers even, and survive, perhaps even profit from the turmoil. But in the long-term, the siege will destroy your community, your culture, your long-term prospects; it’s delusional to think otherwise.
But more so, fighting the good fight transforms you from a nut gatherer to something more: a servant of Gaia.3
And yes, fighting, and worse, the prospect of failure, may feel scary, but the philosopher Kieran Setiya explores failure in great depth in his recent book Life is Hard. A short paragraph won’t do his insights justice, but he makes many key points, including that a good life is not about outcomes as much as about the journey itself. Thus pursuing one’s quest (in whatever forms they take) is when one is happiest (regardless of the outcome).
Moreover, as Setiya notes, all lives are “an assortment of small successes and failures.” It’s only when we attempt to create one overarching narrative (that I am a climate activist, for example) that failure can feel devastating. Instead, when one also develops other aspects of one’s life, all failures are much less painful. To make that point, Setiya uses a baseball example about Ralph Branca, the three-time All Star pitcher who pitched the “shot heard ‘round the world.” After that, Branca was always remembered as a failure—losing the National League pennant—but he also had a “huge and happy family,” and in future years he went on to be a champion on the TV quiz game Concentration, an author, and even play a cameo role in a film.
In the context of the Gaian Way, you serve Gaia in many ways: as activist; educator; worker; community member; in the role of father, mother, or allo-parent; as tend-er of living beings (such as a garden or forest); and so on. Of course, not all of these—as time and inclinations are limited—and not every realm will feel as full of success as others, but those aspects that feel like failures will hopefully be balanced by those that feel more filled with success (and that even within one realm there will be both a mix of failures and successes).
So take action. Not to the point where you burn out (and thus stop taking action) but in a way you can sustainably keep fighting over the course of your life.4 Sure, there will be peaks and valleys: up in adolescence, down as you start a career, up as you get settled, down as you have a child, up as the child becomes old enough to join your efforts, up more as she or he goes off to college, down as you battle with illness, up as you recover, down as you help raise your grandchild, up when she or he can join you in the fight, down when your health becomes frail and you eventually return to Gaia.
The second half of Aurelius’s quote is as powerful and relevant here as the first:
“Spend, therefore, these fleeting moments of earth as Nature would have you spend them, and then go to your rest with a good grace, as an olive falls in its season, with a blessing for the earth.”
Go with Gaia,
1) There are other, gentler ways this was translated, like: “Man himself is today in embryo, tomorrow a mummy or a handful of ashes” and “In short, mankind are poor transitory things! They are one day in the rudiments of life, and almost the next turned to mummy or ashes.” But the shock factor of starting life as bodily fluid is striking and I’m guessing that the diction in these gentler versions were shaped by their times (1811 and 1887 respectively).
2) Perhaps at other moments as well. But I can imagine many times in history when one was born on a farm and in most cases would die on that very same farm. No shame in that but perhaps not the same opportunity to do something great for Gaia (other than keeping the soil alive and well—which is no small service, and just like a tree can make one’s life a net ecological positive).
3) I’ve said this before in a more parabolic way:
“A teacher and student are walking in the woods. They reach a field just as a red-tailed hawk swoops down and snatches up a mouse, carries it to a dead tree, and starts immediately to consume it. After silently watching for a moment, the student turns to his teacher and asks,
“Master, what is the purpose of a mouse? Of a hawk? Of all life?”
Without taking her eyes from the hawk, the teacher responds. “It is to serve Gaia. Or die.”
4) Actually, I just spoke this past weekend on the value of #DoNothingForTheClimateDay, which offers a chance to slow down, and remind yourself just how important it is to pace yourself throughout your hopefully life-long efforts to heal the Earth and build a more ecocentric and just society.