Life, however long, will always be short,” the poet Wislawa Szymborska wrote. And for those of us with a secular worldview who don’t expect to experience an afterlife, our time here is that much more precious. “Something about the meaning of life changes when you realize deeply that it won’t last forever,” wrote Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. “We bring a deeper commitment to our happiness when we fully understand… that our time left is limited and we really need to make it count.” There is only one holiday this season celebrating what is arguably the defining aspect of human life: New Year’s Eve, our global, secular celebration of the passage of time.
Beyond the parties, traffic, and kissing, December 31st offers a pause in life’s chattering conversation to reflect on what we’ve learned from the past and what we hope for the future. Most of us want to live happy, meaningful lives, but we also know we’re not going to live forever—if we were, we would have no need to mark the passing of each year with such passionate celebrations of life. After several years researching what mankind has had to say about how to live a meaningful life, I’ve found the finitude of life is a universal theme. As Saul Bellow wrote, “Death is the dark backing a mirror needs if we are to see anything.” Death, the moment in each of our lives when time’s arrow hits it target, is what gives our lives meaning.
Of course, brooding about death all the time is no recipe for happiness. Embracing joy when you find it is. “Be fully awake to everything about you,” LeRoy Pollock advised his teenaged son Jackson in 1928. “The more you learn the more you can appreciate & get a full measure of joy & happiness out of life. I do not think a young fellow should be too serious, he should be full of the Dickens some times to create a balance.” We shouldn’t forget or abstain from having fun.
Writer Brendan Gill concurred. “Not a shred of evidence exists in favor of the argument that life is serious, though it is often hard and even terrible,” he wrote. “Since everything ends badly for us, in the inescapable catastrophe of death, it seems obvious that the first rule of life is to have a good time; and that the second rule of life is to hurt as few people as possible in the course of doing so. There is no third rule.” In the long nights of midwinter, New Year’s Eve parties encourage just this attitude. Toward the end of his extraordinary life, the twentieth century’s greatest economist John Maynard Keynes confessed: “My only regret is that I have not drunk more Champagne.” Don’t make Keynes’s mistake.
We should, then, make an effort to be happy. But how? “Our obligation is to give meaning to life and in doing so to overcome the passive, indifferent life,” wrote Elie Wiesel. “We must make every minute rich and enriching, not for oneself, but for someone else.” Compassion and kindness are the keys. “The only possible good in the universe is happiness,” said the Civil War veteran, orator, and noted freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll. “The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to try to make others so.”
So what if the past year wasn’t all you hoped for? In that case it can be helpful to remember a simple trick of perspective: take the long view. As Charlie Chaplin believed, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” What seems terrible right now will seem less so, later. Or, as Caitlin Moran puts it: “Life divides into AMAZING ENJOYABLE TIMES and APPALLING EXPERIENCES THAT WILL MAKE FUTURE AMAZING ANECDOTES.” Either way, you’re covered.
And if you are among the one-fifth of Americans who claims no religious affiliation or the one of the growing number of the nonreligious, the mere fact of our existence can itself inspire, whatever the time of year. “Statistically, the probability of any one of us being here is so small,” wrote Lewis Thomas, “that you’d think the mere fact of existing would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise." Atheists don’t look to the supernatural for wonder; we can see it all around us, whatever the season. As the English playwright Laurence Housman said: “Find something that isn’t a miracle, you’ll have cause to wonder then.”
Our time here on earth amidst its deep forests, its crowded sidewalks, and in the company of the people we love, is limited. “That it will never come again,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “Is what makes life so sweet.” So enjoy the sweetness of this New Year’s Eve. And “if you ever start taking life too seriously,” comedian Joe Rogan reminds us, “just remember that we are talking monkeys on an organic spaceship flying through the universe.” Now pour the talking monkeys some Champagne.