Infinity is a terrifying concept. Blaise Pascal once said: “When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” On some level, we are incapable of conceptualising what it means for an infinite universe to exist; if the universe is infinitely large, we are by comparison infinitely small.
We often think of infinity as a complex mathematical abstraction, but it also occupies the more mundane aspects of the human experience. We are transfixed by this everyday infinity. It manifests in our obsession with everlasting love, in the locks that couples leave upon bridges to symbolise eternal devotion. It is found in the parent who takes hundreds of photographs of their children, desperately trying to make the temporary years last forever. In a way, we transpose this attitude into our negative experiences as well: there is something vaguely unsatisfying about the phrase “it gets better,” because in the moment, it seems as though pain will stretch unbounded into the future. Our overwhelming desire to eternalise even the most ephemeral of experiences stems from an attempt to escape the looming spectre of change. In that sense, it is the finite we fear more than the infinite.
Perhaps we are deeply uncomfortable with the temporary for the same reason we are uncomfortable with change. It’s as though our lives are sandcastles which are washed away at every tide. If something doesn’t last forever, is it still meaningful? Implicitly, many of us answer no, and so we carve our initials into trees and put locks on bridges and try desperately to build ourselves sandcastles that will stand the test of time. Alas, the truth is that every sandcastle meets its end, and that most things are woefully temporary. There are no true infinities. We buy temporary homes, start temporary relationships, and refuse to resign ourselves to the fact that our lives are, in the end, just that: temporary. Maybe when we experience grief, the challenging part isn’t just loss itself, but the realisation that human life is impermanent. Mortality on the whole is confounding because it violates our belief that we exist infinitely—each religion’s notion of the afterlife is probably in some form derived from a desire to circumvent the discomfort of a temporary existence. It is easy to see why we would prefer a world of the infinite to the world of the transient.
Nonetheless, this romanticised version of infinity is a bit disingenuous in itself. As much as we long for the idea of forever, eternity has an exhausting quality: an inherent fatigue with the thought of waking up every day to the same infinitely constant reality. The advantage of the finite is in the opportunity to reinvent ourselves. Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote, “Human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.” The ability to choose a different life is the silver lining of our existential impermanence.
Our fleeting experiences can never truly satisfy the desire for infinity. We only really get pieces of the lives we want to live, bounded pleasures found within a devastatingly transitory world. And yet, it is through these fragments of infinity that we find meaning and ultimately, define ourselves in relation to a boundless universe.