Taking the dread out of existentialism, one box at a time

In my room there hangs an all-white poster. All that fills the space is 4,628 boxes, roughly a fifth of them checked with a single black line.
It’s plain, simple and terrifying all at once.
Each box represents a week of life gone by. Each row contains 52 boxes for each week of a year, while each column stretches to the grand old age of 89.
This “Life Calendar,” as it is named, is a subtle reminder of the futility of life. The boxes tell no story; they communicate only the passage of time. It’s existentialism for the visual learner.
Those thousands of boxes yet to be checked is a lot of time. And yet it isn’t.
Let’s assume that I will be fortunate enough to see each of those weeks through, checking those little boxes into my late 80s. Within that time, there will be good days and there will be bad. There will be joys that make life worth living and there will be stresses that make it feel as though the world is ending. There will be love and grief and pain and hope.
You wouldn’t know it from a box.
The poster, for me, is a visualization of something bigger. It represents my life thus far but it is an indicator that I, and you, are part of a system that frankly could not care less if we are here or not.
The checks in those boxes could stop at any point, be it this week or seventy years from now. And what would happen after? In a grand sense, the world would keep turning and the universe would keep expanding. Time would march on, and so would the human experiment.
For perspective, humans have been around for just 0.002% of the universe’s existence. 13.8 billion years precede our existence, and billions of years will follow it. All of humanity exists as a blip in a larger cosmic story, one in which we cannot fully understand our role. We are, as individuals and as a collective, completely insignificant.
So, how does a person grapple with that? How do you come to terms with the finite nature of your life and the insignificance of everything around you?
There are a couple of ways to deal with that reality. You can avoid it entirely — as most of us do — until something causes dread to bubble up and disrupt the flow of your daily life. You can relish in that tempting existential dread, lying down with a cool-yet-absent “none of it matters” attitude. But neither of these is productive. The third and, I would argue, most ideal way to face existential dread is to remove the dread.
Easier said than done for some.
But dread or no dread, your situation is the same. You are an intelligent mammal on a rock, floating through the vastness and complexity of space. Who’s to say what kind of purpose there is in that randomness?
Living with this philosophy in mind opens up pathways that may otherwise have gone overlooked. In recognizing that the origin of our lives are unknowable and inconsequential in many ways, the elements of life that get in the way of authenticity are also allowed to fade. Cultural norms become irrelevant. There is no falling behind. There is no failure. You have never lived in the current moment you are in, and who of us is to dictate what is right and wrong in a world with no guidance or true meaning?
Now no one, myself included, likes to think about their own mortality. And granted, there isn’t always time to think about your place in the universe when there will be real-life consequences tomorrow for a choice you make today, however insignificant it may ultimately be.
But this kind of thinking is not concerned with the personal, natural fear of no longer being. It takes the minutiae of being a person in society and discards them. It says that you are a part of something bigger than yourself. Everything you have done and will ever do exists within a system that will trek on, with or without you.
The past led to this moment, and this moment will lead to the next. There is no changing what has happened or will happen. There is no ultimate goal. Much of the universe and its origin is unknown. Insert your own beliefs into the gaps, but the sentiment remains: at one time life was not, and life will not be again. Your boxes will be checked, in the meantime, one way or another.
Living with a “nothing matters” mentality shouldn’t make you apathetic. If anything, the opposite is true. Nothing matters, so why hate? Why worry yourself with problems that will have no consequence in your life? It does not mean don’t try and don’t care; it means try to be happy, and ideally make others happy while you’re here. In the words of author Mary Shelley, “live, and be happy, and make others so.”
I cannot plan for what each of those yet-to-be-checked boxes holds. I cannot change what happened in the boxes that are already slashed. All you or I can do is live a life that makes us happy, taking on life as it comes. Because nothing matters. To me, that is anything but dreadful.