I once travelled in a crowded dusty general compartment of our lovely Indian Railways from Mumbai to Hyderabad. I left from Mumbai on an evening train. Across me, sat a man with a silver beard in a Gandhi topi, white kurta and black jeans. He had a black laptop bag filled with what sounded like chocolate wrappers. When his phone rang, I heard him take a call in prosaic English.
As the silence of the night crept into the noisy compartment, we made small talk. I learned that he loved to make soup. One thing led to another and soon I was asking the question I asked everyone I met at that time: “Does anything we do matter?”
Today, when you read the wisdom pieces on the Internet — they tell you the next challenge that you can crack. How you must follow your passion. How you are a one in million snowflake handcrafted by the God himself. Completely skipping that even if you are one in a million, there are 1200 just like you in India alone.
They even try to sell you success in a bottle with titles like: “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” and “13 things billionaires after they do wake up”. These are what I like to call intellectual porn, but that’s an orgasm for another day.
Someone will ask you to change the world, someone will ask you to be the change. It seems like everyone except the bus conductor has change.
The cacophony of these passionate persistent productivity hackers is drowning the notes of melodies that we need to hear. The melody of chirping birds, the melody of time flowing, one moment at a time.
To think of it, even if I live for 100 years — measured against the time since humans have existed, I have been here for merely a few seconds. If I measure it against the time since Earth has existed, I will have lived for a few fractions of nanoseconds. If I measure it against the time since the first Dance of Universe, I will have lived for a less than a picosecond.
I told the old man, in two generations, his grandchildren would have forgotten about his tenth standard crush, his long late night walks along broken roads and roaring ravines, his marriage of decades and his sweet fights over sugar in the tea.
Tired with angst, I stopped for a breath. An eerie calm filled by the humming melody of the train tearing through the villages swept in.
Have you heard of Sisyphus?
Sisyphus is among the greatest Greek anti-heroes. The wise King who outwitted the Gods and came back from the dead.
For this mischief, Hades cursed the King to an eternity of pushing an enormous rock up a mountain only to watch it fall and have to start pushing it up again.
Hades had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. Our lives, everything that we sweat for, fight for — is nothing more than egregious erroneous effort.
Then, the old man continued in a transient melody:
It doesn’t mean anything. In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win. And I am exuberant about that.
I am as happy about that as I am about making soup.
My first step is to chop up a huge pile of vegetables.
Before I consider this soup “ready” I will strain it. I will filter it. There will be no trace of some of the things I used to make it delicious, such as the papery skin of an onion, the brown ends of a carrot, the tough, fibrous cauliflower stems.
But all of these things will contribute to the flavor of the final soup.
I am not at all bothered by the notion that two generations from now there will be no trace of me. Moral speculation is puny compared to moral action.
I believe that with my actions, however small, I leave something behind that contributes to the taste of what I’ll call the final cosmic soup.
And this is why everything you do matters.
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing you do matters…then all that matters is what you do. Because that’s all there is. What you do. Now. Today.
If there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.
Inspiration: Angel’s Epiphany Speech. Includes excerpts from Paul Kalanithi’s memoir: When Breath Becomes Air and Dushka Zapata’s soup analogy.
This was originally written as a speech for Samsung Bangalore Toastmasters Club and later adapted to this essay form.