The teddy bear dilemma: Or, the value of things that aren’t infinite

One could pick away at that title and argue, “well Jes, nothing on Terra is infinite.” That is true. However we humans, even those of us who don’t necessarily believe in a literal afterlife, seem to operate on a notion that things will generally last at least as long as we individuals do, if not longer. This goes for possessions in our homes and extends outward, all the way to the largest and most abstract of concepts, such as civilization itself. Or, to put it another way, most folk tend to operate with a general ignorance as to the true fleeting fragility of all things. Human civilization, in its current divided and overtaxed state, is one planetwide disaster away from collapse at most any given time. Even the mighty Sol has a limit and is one day destined to die. So, as many theists tend to posit, if you don’t believe in an afterlife and/or an eternal soul, what reason would any atheist have to assign value to anything in life? To be fair, I’ve come across some atheists who do posit that everything is meaningless, though more often than not, the atheists and agnostic folk I know have simply chosen to find meaning in life on their own merits, without the filter of a god or religion or some divine purpose.

We humans are scared of dying, it’s hardwired into our genes and is part of the survival instinct. It drives almost everything we do. So it’s understandable to a point that as we evolved and our brains could take on more abstract thinking, we started looking for ways to hope that something, anything of us could live on after death. This, I firmly believe, is the genesis of most, if not all, of the belief systems behind the religions we know today. Primitive humanity was desperately trying to explain its own existence, and even more desperately manufactured a hope that we would never fully ever have to know death, the ultimate oblivion.

Why do I refer to this as The Teddy Bear Dilemma? Because this is what I think about when I look at one. Not every time, and not the whole time, mind you, as I would rather appreciate the cuteness versus endlessly (ha) despairing. I think about how, at some point in the future, that teddy bear will be no more, and perhaps there will come a time when the last teddy bear has passed out of existence. There might be a future out there where kids don’t get to know what plushies are. Is that a future I want? No. I merely acknowledge it as a possibility, and it reminds me to have more gratitude for what I have. I don’t intend to have kids, and though ideally my collection of things that I enjoy in my home and what I accomplish in life will be memorialized and appreciated by someone in the next generation, I have no way to guarantee that. But just because there might be an expiration date on my life and what I enjoy, doesn’t make it less meaningful. Louder for those in the back: just because my life and my possessions and what I enjoy will end, doesn’t make them any less meaningful.

Of course there are many things about this universe and its operations we don’t yet understand and may never. There may truly be gods out there, or at least beings that are godly in comparison to us. The universe as we know it could be a compressed packet of data floating on a black star’s event horizon. Perhaps this really is only one dimension out of many and we are unaware of other versions of us living out in a potentially endless array of parallel realities. Who’s to say for sure, given that we haven’t even gained a full understanding of our own planet yet, much less the Solar System.

Why do I call this a dilemma, then, since I seem to be at peace with the aforementioned ideas? Well, there seems to me to be an obligation of sorts to keep the metaphorical teddy bear around for as long as possible. Call it an extension of genetic selection, or survival of the fittest. We want the best of us to be passed on, we should want the next generation to have a better go of things, to avoid the struggles and pitfalls we survived but shouldn’t have had to if only we as a species were better to each other and our world. The dilemma, the difficulty, then, is to not succumb to the sadness and despair at the inevitable loss of the teddy bear, but to ensure that what it represents and offers endures, for as long as it is possible for us humans to make it so. Who knows, perhaps the effort itself is what will in some way echo across time, space, dimensions, or whatever else is out there. I don’t have literal faith in such a thing, but as Spock was once credited to have said by Admiral Kirk, “…there are always possibilities.”


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