This is a republishing of the Shoulders of Giants newsletter.
👨🏫 Topic: The Mortality Paradox
📸 Visual: Sacrifice from parents
🔍 Quote: Daila Lama on how we waste the present and future
📜 Passage: Meghan Daum on the best and worst part about being young
Our lives are a contradiction. We’re above nature but hopelessly bound by it—a superspecies that’s no more meaningful than a stray dog. We feel like the centre of the universe, but understand we’ll rot and disappear in no time.
So we dream, love, wonder, plan, build, and make memories, knowing we’ll lose it all. Being human is the ultimate irony.
We live in a constant identity crisis because our godly side can’t believe it lives in a pile of meat. It’s a tug of war that gives us a lifetime of anxiety—being so smart yet so fragile is hard. This is called the mortality paradox.
This death anxiety pushes us to find an escape. So we fill our lives with busyness and become obsessed with the future, hoping to find relief. But embracing the inevitable is a better idea.
“When we surrender to the fact of death, not the idea of it, we gain license to live more fully, to see life differently.”—Sarah Lewis
Maria Popova calls death a prerequisite for life. We hold things closer when they’re scarce. A rollercoaster ride that never ends gets boring eventually.
It’s why we seek value too. Knowing we’re going to die pushes us to give our life significance. So death is more like a blank canvas than a void. It doesn’t ban meaning from life—it’s the groundwork to build meaning on top of.
But again, there’s irony. We’ll never be significant on Earth’s time scale.
Think of it like this:
The Sun will absorb our planet when it’s 12 billion years old. The average person blinks 500 million times in their life. So our time on Earth is like asking a 78-year-old man to list four times he blinked in his 30s. Yikes.
But that’s a thought I hug on to. I can disappear into the vastness of existence when life gets overwhelming. There were billions of people before me, and there will be billions after. There’s no pressure in the middle of a crowd.
“Anyway, before very long, you'll both be dead - dead and soon forgotten.”—Marcus Aurelius
Being human can feel like a shit deal. As if dying isn’t bad enough, we have to live knowing we’ll die. But it brings value to everything around us, pushes us to build meaning, and gives us a relieving reminder if we mess up: it’s okay; soon, we’ll all be gone.
Man surprises me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.
Now that I am almost never the youngest person in any room I realize that what I miss most about those times is the very thing that drove me so mad back when I was living in them.
What I miss is the feeling that nothing has started yet, that the future towers over the past, that the present is merely a planning phase for the gleaming architecture that will make up the skyline of the rest of my life. But what I forget is the loneliness of all that. If everything is ahead then nothing is behind. You have no ballast. You have no tailwinds either. You hardly ever know what to do, because you’ve hardly done anything.
I guess this is why wisdom is supposed to be the consolation prize of aging. It’s supposed to give us better things to do than stand around and watch in disbelief as the past casts long shadows over the future.