Is it possible for anything to matter? My teacher always tells me if I do bad in a drama scene, I shouldn't worry about it because no one will remember or care in a few weeks. Doesn't that apply to everything? If I cure cancer, surely that will affect almost everyone on the planet, but will anyone even appreciate it a million years after the fact? A billion? Humans can't last forever, and eventually our species will die - meaning no one will be alive to remember cancer even existed. Even Earth will die eventually. Even the Galaxy!! So how can anything I do be important in the grand scheme of things?

There's a classic paper by Thomas Nagel that addresses your question. It's called The Absurd. It appeared the Journal of Philosophy, v. 68 no. 20, 1971. A bit of googling just might find you the full text, though of course <*cough*> I could never actually suggest that you look for a copy produced without regard for copyright.

Nagel thinks there's no getting around the absurdity of life. In fact he thinks there's no conceivable way that life could not be absurd. I can't say I'm completely convinced, but be that as it may; you might find something useful in this, from the end of Nagel's paper:


        If sub species aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that doesn't matter either...

Nagel adds that once we see this, we can live our absurd lives with irony rather than heroism or despair.

Your mileage may vary.

Here's a slightly different take. In my more sanguine moments, I'm inclined to say that it doesn't matter if things don't matter cosmically; they still matter to me. Furthermore, some of them don't matter just to me. If I've managed to do some good, then that good has been done even if the world will not remember. Even if being remembered made the good better, not being remembered doesn't mean it wasn't good.

I'll admit that this is a hard thought to hold onto, but it just might be enough. In any case, it may be the best we can do.

Good question? I have wrestled with this one a lot. Of course, it depends what we mean by "matters" -- if it is an issue of being remembered then there is a good chance that when the earth slips into the sun or whatever, all will be forgotten and in the end nothing will have mattered.

When we say that something matters to us I think we mean to say it has value. But just because an event has impact at one time but not at another -- like the play -- does it follow that it never mattered? I don't think so. I can remember playing football in college. Sad to say, it was the most important thing in the world to me. Now, I can barely remember the outcome of some games. But it doesn't mean that those games were meaningless. There is no reason to think that in order for an event to matter it has to have eternal consequences.

Obviously, your drama teacher was just trying to help you fit things into perspective. Events that can feel world consuming to us at one time will look differently in the rear-view mirror - but again that doesn't mean that they were insignificant at the time.

We might also ask if it is even possible to believe that the events of our life don't matter. I have seldom seen anyone act on the belief - which tells me something. Often it is a dodge or the symptom of depression.

The Nagel article cited by Professor Stairs is perfect for a meditation on this issue - as is Camus's Myth of Sisyphus - which is the target of the Nagel offering. Thanks for your question and for listening.

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