It is human life. We are blown upon the world; we float buoyantly upon the summer air a little while, complacently showing off our grace of form and our dainty iridescent colors; then we vanish with a little puff, leaving nothing behind but a memory–and sometimes not even that. I suppose that at those solemn times when we wake in the deeps of the night and reflect, there is not one of us who is not willing to confess that he is really only a soap-bubble, and as little worth the making.
– Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography (North American Review, 3 May 1907)
The recent publication of the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography has prompted much attention in the media and precipitated reflection on the author’s work and life. This quote stirred my heart and mind enough to express a response here.
Human life is, in some ways, clearly ephemeral as the quote suggests, and many of our expressions with regard to the passing of time reflect this quality. “There’s never enough time in a day,” we often say, for all the things we hope to accomplish. Whenever we are deeply engrossed in something we love to do, we can’t believe how swiftly the time seems to pass, and for those who are able to live long enough to see their children grow up and produce grandchildren, very often they find it hard to believe that their babies are having babies. I know this feeling well. It wasn’t so long ago that I held my youngest daughter in my arms as a baby. Even though being a grandfather was a delight I had experienced four times already, when my grandson, Johnathan, arrived in the world, it seemed impossible that his mother was my youngest child.
The perspective of years is unobtainable without first experiencing years of living, but as we grow older, the passage of a year seems to take less time. It’s a natural experience. When we were six years old, a year seemed to take forever, since it represented one sixth of our entire life. After age 50, the percentage is one fiftieth of our lives and that naturally diminishes the perception of how long it takes to pass. However, nothing actually changes. The world still takes about twenty-four hours to turn around and some 365 days to circle the sun. The temporal world is fairly predictable, but our experience of that world and our perception as cognitive beings is a lot closer to Twain’s poetical musings than we sometimes care to acknowledge.
The one aspect of the musing that struck me as flawed was Twain’s estimation that our lives, while somewhat like a soap bubble, are “as little worth the making.” It seems that he may have been trying to suggest that no one of us has more “worth” than another, but it would be a huge injustice to the “spirit of life,” to say that the experience of human life didn’t add up to anything more than the creation of a soap bubble. Even considering the innumerable human lives that have come and gone on earth since the dawn of humanity, and the incalculable number of lives that we never hear anything about and no one remembers, the experience of those lives, as perhaps only the one who lived them knew, resulted in echoes that reverberate within humanity to this day.
Each of us, no matter what our station in life, has inherited the life we are presently experiencing as a consequence of the existence of our ancestors, both familial and ancient. Our existence as a species, while only a recent development when viewed from a cosmic perspective, has millions of years of evolutionary history upon which our modern day existence is founded. Within us are the primordial echoes of all life since the first single-celled creatures stirred on our planet, and we are creating and contributing today what will be the echoes of life in the centuries to come. There is no accurate value that we can assign to life, but every life contributes to the history of humanity, and every subjective experience of consciousness, regardless of its perceived “worth,” becomes part or parcel of the “human experience,” and by that reckoning, essential to the future of humanity.