A Candle in the Night

Life is not fair. Get used to it.

This statement is often mis-attributed to Bill Gates, but others have clarified that it was actually the words of Charles J Sykes in 1996. The idea has inspired much discussion and speculation. I prefer a more optimistic outlook:

Life is not fair. What can you do to make it better?

We must all face the fact that life is imperfect and that we have the opportunity to make this planet a secular version of heaven or hell. Sadly, we may often feel unsure about which side is winning.

According to Douglas Adams and John Lloyd, The Meaning of Liff is an opportunity to redefine any number of words. For example, although ‘Gallipoli’ is revered in Australian culture as a place of heroism amidst a failed military campaign, in Liff parlance it refers to when something becomes ‘loose, floppy, useless’. Thus Adams and Lloyd provide us with an opportunity to redefine meanings in our lives for things which are meant to be significant but which may lack genuine import.

The same might be said of life itself. Every day, we must prioritise what is important and worth our limited time and effort.

As children, we are born into a world that seems full of things that are deeply meaningful and significant, and we stare in awe at the apparently mystical adult understanding of such things. As we mature, we come to realise that almost everything that we previously saw as being immutable and earth-shatteringly important is, in fact, largely open to reinterpretation and worth downgrading to the status of insignificant piffle. It is a common human revelation that reality rarely lives up to our optimistic expectations; our days rarely match our dreams.

When pondering the reduced importance of most of our everyday trifles, the more cynical among us might include such things as a child’s hero worship of their parents; their belief in Santa Claus, fairies, or divine predestination; and our naive adult conviction that politicians are noble and exemplary leaders. But as we mature, we do not need to lose our ability to seek the magical among the mundane – not literal magic and supernatural hocus pocus, but our sense of wonder and awe, our tendency to find transcendence and significance in our lives. Our parents remain our parents even if, as adults, we come to see them more as human than as superheroes; our gritty reality under the stairs of life can, like that of Harry Potter, still be full of potential for magical transformation and empowerment. Our human ability to retain a childlike sense of optimism and wonder is a strength, not a weakness, and we should cherish it as being indicative of our nobility, our idealism, and our desire to grow and create a better reality. The world around us may not live up to our expectations, but that should not stop us from being the best person that we can be under whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

The gaining of wisdom is surely the ability to outgrow outdated ideas, while holding onto those other older understandings that make our lives special, measured, and compassionate. In the 2005 comedy film, Adam & Steve, two men become reacquainted after many years apart. One of them speaks of being ‘damaged’ in that life has been hard on them and their ideals. The other insists, “We’re in our thirties. Of course we’re damaged.” This allusion to the common loss of youthful idealism becomes an example of mature life wisdom when one of their fathers suggests that it can lead to positive growth: “Happiness is accepting life on life’s terms, no matter what they happen to be. You just do your best with what you’ve been given.”

Oscar Wilde experienced difficulties in his own life, but his words: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, suggest that optimism is a willful choice. This leads us to consider the idea that the meaning of life, of our life, is that which we choose to give it. Life is its own purpose. Even religious people who assert some divine or preordained meaning in existence, will readily admit that we must still each find meaning for ourselves. It is especially during times of darkness that our determination to be kind is most challenged, and most important. That is a form of personal autonomy that we should appreciate, nurture and celebrate.

This month offers possibly a good example of the symbolic potential within such perspectives. World Refugee Day takes place on June 20, a day in which we acknowledge the lives, dignity and humanity of some of the world’s most forgotten people, and we ponder our moral responsibility to help those who have less than ourselves. The very next day, June 21 is World Humanist Day, when we acknowledge the potential for humanity and the ideals of secular humanism as found in the Amsterdam Declaration. June 21 is also the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere, the shortest day of the year, with coldness and darkness enveloping our world in much the same way as today’s pandemic and economic uncertainty. This timing challenges us to ponder a response that we can take forward every day of the year. In times of darkness, do we fight to uphold compassion, and commit ourselves to human advancement?

Alongside the abovenamed declaration, Amsterdam also holds another claim to such optimism. Anne Frank will also be forever linked with the city during a dark period of world history. She showed a defiant spirit against the nihilism of her times, and wrote of the power of the individual against seemingly insurmountable odds: ‘Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.’ Her words evoke what was, for me, an expression that inspired many years of human rights activism: it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. Despite the ugliness in her wartime life, young Anne maintained a sense of positive admiration for the world: “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

While finding beauty in the world around us, and in our night-time skies, we can gain a larger perspective. Douglas Adams once declared the obvious: that space is big. Amidst such immensity, it may seem easy to feel insignificant. Scientist Carl Sagan once suggested that: “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” For aeons, people have looked to the skies for companionship, whether seeking a pantheon of supernatural gods or a population of spooky aliens. Are we alone? The answer is right here, on Earth, where we are surrounded by billions of life forms, some of which are familiar and some are effectively alien – but we are all related through DNA. Even our own bodies contain multitudes. Beyond our planetary biosphere, we do not know whether life is common throughout the cosmos, or whether we may be alone. Either way, the sheer vastness of space makes life special.

What is the point of it all? Ultimately, might nihilism be seen as the ultimate in scientific reductionism: reducing life to meaninglessness? Carl Sagan would disagree. He spoke eloquently and inspirationally of our place in the cosmos. Like Anne Frank, he saw beauty within the tender candle in the dark. Amidst our seeming cosmic insignificance on this pale blue dot, he asserted, we can discover awe, wonder and beauty if we consider a bigger perspective.

Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot OFFICIAL
Passage written by Carl Sagan for the book Pale Blue Dot published by Random House, ©1994 Democritus Properties, LLC carlsagandotcom channel, YouTube.

The Pale Blue Dot promises that even when we feel overwhelmed and overpowered by situations and vistas beyond our control, we can still find grandeur in our humanity: “To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

The Universe is a grand place, and we are a part of it. Let’s make our time count.

© 2020 Geoff Allshorn