The much celebrated 2014 film Birdman, gives an insightful review of human (in)significance in one key scene between Sam [Emma Stone] and Riggan [Michael Keaton].
Riggan, an ageing actor and artist who is suffering an identity crisis, is counselled by his daughter as to how her recent stint in rehab helped her come to peace with her own anxieties. She methodically draws small dashes onto squares of toilet paper, 150 dashes per square, until she fills and entire roll.
Then she unfurls the paper roll and points out that one meagre square of tissue represents the entire span of human existence. One dash alone equals a million years and the roll entire, the 6 billion odd years of space and time. In so doing, her own and Riggan’s agonies over life significance are put into perspective.
The illustration questions any worries about life achievements, fame, or success. Indeed, there seems little difference between doing ‘something’ and doing ‘nothing’ with ones life, little difference between becoming a trillionaire even, and becoming a subsistence farmer.
Any sense of achievement then is simply won in comparison to our peers, those whose admiration we might crave or whose love or fear we might seek. Ultimately, however, we remain a small fleck within an infinite sea of darkness, a darkness within which giant stars burn for millions of years and even they remain dwarfed by galaxies, in turn dwarfed by the magnitude of space and time.
Is such an epiphany calming? or more anxiety inducing? Why in fact should we make any effort? and for what ultimately, is any effort of value?
What indeed then, is the difference between committing mass murder verses committing ones life to charity and community service? If ultimately, we are atoms afloat in an infinite sea of nothing, then nothing indeed is of meaning, is it not?!
The story explores the primal questions that existentialist philosophers have asked for millennia. It brings us back to the ground of being which is in our feelings, our hearts, our emotions and our soul. The difference between committing one’s life to harm verses help, lies in the significance of the human experience, in our feelings, our heart and soul. We draw our being from love, not from our achievements, our wealth, our power, fame or grandeur.
We don’t draw our significance from our stature amidst infinite space and time, for it renders us ridiculously finite; we draw our significance from the face of love, which is the face of God.
The question still stands, to what do we commit our little life to then, the hours we have, the time in our hands? The biblical story of the ‘talents’ [Matt 25:14-30] expounds on this very point. If you have one talent, double it; if you have five talents, make them ten. Whatever you have, work with it, double it, increase it.
And more than anything, do all you do, with love.