Sometimes now I think that I am evolving into a misanthrope, a crank. Perhaps it is too much living alone, perhaps the lack of having a role, a persona, thrust upon me by the demands of survival. For how long, in fact, will I be required to survive? I am a bit stunned and confused by the superficial freedom that I now possess. Every trivial choice can be defined as I determine, and so requires some thought, the elaboration of ethical principles for a decision to say this or that to this or that person, or even to talk to anyone at all.

I am reading a book by Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate. It is an enormous opus in the tradition of War and Peace and like it presents an opportunity to live in another world, another time, without having to leave the comfort of one’s bed. I eye the 700 remaining pages and I am content. While I am continually reminded of my essential purposelessness I read about a time when one’s life could depend upon a signature on a piece of paper, on the momentary mood of a petty bureaucrat, when people, Russians and Jews, could enjoy a treasured piece of pie while knowing that the next day, or at least the one after that, they would be dead.

Now we wind ourselves into hysterics because some petty politician was photographed, years ago, in an inappropriate costume. A spiral of offense twirls upward, eventually dissipating in the silent ether. In truth, the spasms of outrage are fed from a vacuum of carelessness, an inner emptiness, an avoided awareness that nothing really matters. We are a trivial people, doing trivial things, and we most of all do not want to understand that the world will lose nothing, will miss nothing, when we are gone.

In the end – or “at the end of the day” as the pretentious have lately so liked to say – the meaning of experience is formed by the depth of one’s thoughts; and so, when one’s thoughts are trivial, the very significance of life, of the world where we have evolved for millions of years, is lost. Descartes realized, “I think therefore I am.” But he did not go on to the necessary conclusion, “Therefore, how I think determines what I am.”

I am a leaf of awareness, flitting in the winds of consciousness, waiting for a storm, or even a momentary gust of breeze, to provide me with direction. I understand that the choice involved in each moment should be guided by love, but what is love? Is love anything other than ethical self-discipline, derived from a commitment to existential service? I must do what is right, and what is right is – precisely what? To give to the other what and when one can?

Yesterday I met a young man, a barista at a local coffee shop, who was setting out to be a writer. He had recently returned from some months in Ireland and now was awaiting responses from his applications to fine arts graduate programs. Now, whether one can learn to be a writer at a graduate school has been the focus of much debate, but nonetheless he was a generous soul, a kind soul, and so I of course saw that he was at the beginning of a trail on which I was already half a continent away. Naturally this led me to look back, in the understanding that the turns one takes determines how one’s time is filled, just like Caesar’s choices filled his time before he became a pile of ashes.

Eventually, maybe before the end of the trail, one realizes that all this storm and stress does not necessarily signify nothing – for nothing is the great reservoir of all – but it does not signify very much. And our desperation, our frantic energy, or our “depression” and fundamental lethargy, are our efforts to conceal this simple realization from ourselves. We come and go, like seasons, like ants across a crowded sidewalk, like supernovae exploding into eternal silence. But we do come and we do go.

It does not matter if you are a colossus or a nonentity, if you impose your will on the masses of the world or if you meekly follow the herd over the cliff, either way the door inevitably will be closed upon you. No marks will be made, no residue of you will remain in this world. If anyone thinks of you at all or contemplates your works and dreams it will not be you that their thoughts contain but themselves, their own needs and desires and associations. Is that nothing, that cypher, enough to fill the cup of this moment with meaning?

I think of the moment that Hemingway’s self-created character in For Whom the Bell Tolls, after forcing his lover to go on without him, settles down, wounded, on a hill with his rifle to fight his last battle. Of course it doesn’t matter, whether he will kill a few people he identifies as enemies before he himself is killed. Perhaps he wonders how painful the end will be, those last moments as his flesh is shredded mortally. I suppose one only gets those moments once. The point is that one doesn’t have the chance to talk about those moments with close friends later or write poetry about it. All that is done, no matter its value or self-perceived significance, because one will not be perceiving any more. Nonetheless, as Hemingway’s character does, one makes a choice, out of habit or coercion or perceived necessity or boredom, perhaps even in the awareness of its essential ambiguity. At that moment the real purpose for which one lives and dies is illuminated like a flickering candle and then extinguished. That, at the end of that day, will have to be enough.