Tim O’Brien: Week 8

For his final column, TIM O’BRIEN goes deep and tackles the biggest question of them all…

| UPDATED column columnist columns deep existence kindness meaning meaning of life philosophical questions scale the world tim o'brien week 8

I am totally and utterly addicted to bookmarking pages on the internet. It’s actually a bit weird – every day I can expect 10-15 new saved pages in my browser, none of which I will ever come back to at a later date. Recently, I thought analysing them might reveal something profound about myself. Turns out it didn’t at all, instead it revealed something much more important. Something deep and universal… I think my bookmarking habit has revealed the meaning of life.Now before I enter the realms of uber-self-indulgence, I appreciate I am contradicting my earlier advice that no-one knows anything and navel-gazing is unnecessary. But fortunately this doesn’t apply if you have a beard or do Cam FM, and I also had ‘YOLO’ in my blurb… so screw it, let’s do this. Better than my last column being a personal attack on the readership, or a giant inside joke on that roof once (yes Alex Jackman, I’m finally biting).

So… the meaning of life.

Well it’s pretty hard to know where to start, though I reckon this website – ‘Faces of Facebook’ – does a pretty good job. It is a site that has dedicated one pixel to each of the 1.2 billion Facebook profiles on earth, and it is a humbling experience. No matter where you click on that vast ocean of faces I guarantee you will be faced with a similar selection of vulnerable, worried eyes staring back at you, each with their own fears, aspirations, insecurities, relationships, passions, and big toes. If you think about it, there are currently 14.4 billion big toes in the world (historically there have been over 200 billion). Lined up end to end, these toes would stretch 400,000km – ten times round the equator. Now, look down at your big toes. You’ve probably got two inches of this distance, at best. That’s how insignificant we are as individuals.

Each and every one of us, vulnerable and alone

This isn’t even the scariest thing though. I wouldn’t mind being a small part of a huge system, but if we zoom out, earth itself is what Carl Sagan calls just a ‘lonely speck in the great, enveloping cosmic dark’. If you click one link in this entire column, make sure it’s THIS – it is by far the best attempt to put into perspective the sickening smallness of our world within an ever-expanding chasm of terrifying and unfathomable emptiness. Earth just hangs there, a ‘pale blue dot’ drifting aimlessly through space.

Earth from 4 billion miles away

The ‘Overview Effect’ is a documented shift in perspective that affects astronauts who get a chance to actually see the earth in this context. Looking down transfixed on the earth from above, astronauts claim to suddenly feel everything put into a profound and unique perspective. Whether it’s a stubbed toe, human rights abuse, environmental destruction, malpractice at the Union Society, or full scale war – all the problems of humanity are brought into clear focus as these astronauts come to realise the fact we bring many of them upon ourselves by not being able to see beyond our own four walls (okay, maybe not a stubbed toe). It’s a similar feeling you get watching “Life in A Day”, Ridley Scott’s piecing together of 80,000 YouTube videos into a snapshot of 24 hours on earth. Being reminded that every aspect of the human condition is playing itself out simultaneously across the planet, or looking down at Earth as a piece of rock hanging there space; these are both things that force you to step back and look beyond your own fundamentally limited perspective. It’s the same appeal behind travelling a lot.

‘The Overview Effect’:

Before I disappear too far up my own backside (or is it too late?), I should probably offer some kind of solution. Admittedly though, I am just a clueless 23 year old with an inevitably flawed and idealistic view, so I’d like to point instead to an 87 year old Bertrand Russell’s surprisingly simple solution. In 1959, he was asked what his ‘message to the future’ would be. At this point, we’re talking about a man who had spent over eight decades using his brilliant mental faculties to over-analyse just about every corner of reality. Bearing this in mind, his conclusion was shockingly simple – just be nice to each other.

‘If we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of … tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet’:

He’s totally right. What all these moments of perspective have in common is an appreciation of the simple fact we are all in this together. No matter your culture, opinions, qualities, or beliefs, you cannot escape this truth – we share a planet and so have a duty to work together to make it as habitable and pleasant as it can be. As Sagan points out, ‘think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot’. With a bit of perspective, this ‘posturing’ and ‘self-importance’ is exposed, and all we are really left with is our responsibility to just try and put up with each other.

The whole of humanity is inescapably linked by the fact we share this home. And in the same way you need to try and deal with your housemates’ loud sex or brash opinions, we need to be able to deal with each other as humans. How do we do that? We strive to be kinder and more tolerant. Simple.

With that in mind, Alex Jackman I forgive you for criticizing Cam FM 97.2, the award-winning student radio station for Cambridge University which you can get involved in by going to camfm.co.uk/getinvolved.

Everyone else, thanks for reading my columns this term. It’s been a pleasure.