I had a conversation with a friend of mine who had recently broken up with her boyfriend. It was a fairly short relationship, but it was still long enough for her to develop feelings for this person, and the reason he gave for their breakup was somewhat vague. She felt that the relationship had been a good one, but since it ended for what she perceived to be little reason and she didn’t feel as though she could learn anything from the experience, she described it as completely meaningless. If it has no value after the fact, how could it have had value at all?

I want to cycle through a bunch of thought experiments, and I want you, dear reader, to think about these examples and decide their worth.

What has greater value? A person who gets married at 25, has a great, healthy relationship for 30 years, and then the marriage ends. It doesn’t matter how, maybe their partner dies or whatever, but then that person is alone and miserable for another 30 years and dies at the age of 85. Or: A person who has a relationship for two years, then is alone and miserable for one year, then a relationship for two years, then alone for one, etc. again from the age of 25 to 85. So that’s essentially 40 years of relationships to 20 years of isolated misery. Assume that these multiple, brief relationships are mostly healthy ones.

Next, let’s look at addiction. Say someone has been an addict for 20 years, and then after 40 years of sobriety they finally slip, and overdose and die. Compare this to someone who has been an addict for 40 years, then they sober up for 20 years, and then die a non-drug-related death.

Lastly, consider success. Say a person garners great success for themself fairly early on in their life, and then accomplishes little during the rest of it. Compare this person to someone who achieves great success near the end of their long, mediocre life. Assume equal amounts of success.

What value has temporality? I think most people would agree that the 30 year relationship has more value than the sum of 40 years worth of many relationships because more meaning can be built with a single partner. Children could be born and properly raised, many great trips could be shared, etc. It’s not necessarily the length of something that gives it its worth, but the value that one finds within it.

Secondly, the end of something doesn’t necessarily determine its worth either. I think the more obvious choice regarding the addict is that the length of the sobriety trumps a sober death. It is a tragic end to be sure, but I don’t believe that the end invalidates the 40 years of a healthy life that was lived prior to it. If the addict had been hit by a bus on their way to buy the drugs, and never got the chance to overdose, would that have invalidated his life? Of course not. The end of something cannot negate the meaning of something because all things must end. Even if, for example, one were to find out that their partner had been lying to them about an affair for years, that would still not negate any happiness one had felt because in that moment that happiness was real. Being miserable and betrayed now does not make you less happy when you initially felt it.

Meaning is in the moment. And whether that meaning continues or ends is irrelevant to the worth of that meaning when it takes place. We as humans, however, can only live in the present. And looking at it in the abstract, we might think that the greatness achieved at the beginning of one’s life is equal to greatness achieved at the end of one’s life, but you also have to remember that when Robin Williams killed himself, all the fond memories his fans had of him were from over a decade ago.

Living in the present means that we don’t normally appreciate the value of meaning that we once had. If someone tells me that I’m living in the past because I’m sulking over an ex-girlfriend or something, that is untrue. The joy of the past that I am currently focusing on is not living in the past because I’m miserable about it; not joyful. I am using my present moment as a judge of past meaning, even if, when taken in the abstract, we can see that that is not its true value.

Speaking of ex-girlfriends, I have one that grew up in poverty. One of the things she told me about poverty was that when things were good, even though frugality might make things a little easier financially later on, their family would still splurge a little bit because when things were bad later, they had those good times to look back on and appreciate. They chose to bank their meaning rather than their finances, and while it may not be conventional wisdom, they still survived and probably had more enriched lives because of it.

Can we extract ourselves from the present? Can we appreciate the past as it is meant to be appreciated, and recognize the infinite uncertainty of the future which could very well hold our greatest success? Well, we can certainly try.

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