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Joy in Flashes of Insight

The next time you swat a fly, you may want to reflect on the fact that you’re cutting shorter an already short lifespan an average of just four weeks.

But it’s not the shortest of average animal lifespans. That distinction goes to the mayfly, whose average life lasts only 24 hours. There are 2,500 species of mayflies, however, and some of them last only a few hours, according to an online nature site.

The prize for the longest animal lifespan goes to the famous Galapagos Island tortoise, which lives an average of 150 years.

The average lifespan of humans is about half that. According to the World Health Organization, the average life expectancy of a human being was 71.4 years in 2015, the most recent year for which data were available. 

A Drop in the Bucket

When you compare 71.4 years to the estimated 200,000 years modern humans have existed, it is a drop in the bucket, and even more insignificant when you consider that the ancestors of humans walked the earth for an estimated six million years.

If you divide 200,000 by the average age of 71.4, it comes out to 2,801 generations. But that number would be much higher if you consider that previous generations lived much shorter lives.

So what’s my point in all this?

Just that considering all the generations that have gone before us makes our lifetimes seem especially short. True, our perception of the time allotted to us varies over our lifetimes. If we have an unhappy or unhealthy youth, time may seem to go as slow as that of a Galapagos tortoise. But for most of us, looking into the future as young people, our lifetimes may seem almost endless. Older people, of course, have a heightened sensation of the rapid passage of time.

In perspective, our time on this earth is but a breath. It’s an example of how perception differs from reality. And that’s one of the problems in trying to get people to consider the transcendent. We are so encased in this life, in what we can see and touch, in our projects, our jobs, our families, we have little time or inclination to consider anything beyond them.

In our most reflective moments, it may occur to us to ask what life is about, to probe its meaning. But aren’t those fleeting, instinctive questions much more important than the time we allot them?

Many say that the question of life’s meaning is itself meaningless, that life has no “meaning,” that it’s just something we live. They say we are like our animal cousins and like them, should take life as it comes, with no reflection, no aspirations, no hope beyond what is apparent.

But isn’t it more human to take a special joy in the flashes of insight about the transcendent we may have and long to know more?

In his book, “The Language of God,” Francis Collins, a world-renown scientist who heads the Human Genome Project, addresses the common notion that belief in God and the transcendent is just wishful thinking, as if that somehow disqualifies it as real.

He cites Sigmund Freud, who argued that wishes for God stem from “early childhood experiences,” the childish wish for a “daddy” who solves all our problems.

That’s not a good argument against God and religion, however, writes Collins, because that’s not the God described in the Bible or the God who is the object of faith of most of the world’s religions. That God is loving and kind but one who also expects us to take responsibility for our lives and those of others. In other words, a God who requires accountability.

Lost the Ability?

But isn’t it possible that this longing for God we sometimes feel, if even for an instant, accurately reflects who we are or who we are meant to be and that we have lost the ability to follow through?

Collins quotes the author and poet Annie Dillard in lamenting humans’ rejection of the author of life, the renunciation of the search for meaning.

“It is difficult to undo our own damage and to recall to our presence that which we have asked to leave,” Dillard writes. “It is hard to desecrate a grove and change your mind. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it. We are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind used to cry and the hills shout forth praise?

“And yet it could be that wherever there is motion there is noise, as when a whale breaches and smacks the water, and wherever there is stillness there is the small, still voice, God’s speaking from the whirlwind, nature’s old song and dance, the show we drove from town….”


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