Is this how you want to go out, with a show that gets smaller and smaller until it’s gone?
Maybe that’s O.K. I think you have more of a problem with that than I do. [Laughs.] At this point in my career, I could go out with a grand, 21-gun salute, and climb into a rocket and the entire Supreme Court walks out and they jointly press a button, I’m shot up into the air and there’s an explosion and it’s orange and it spells, “Good night and God love.” In this culture? Two years later, it’s going to be, who’s Conan? This is going to sound grim, but eventually, all our graves go unattended.
You’re right, that does sound grim.
… I had a great conversation with Albert Brooks once. When I met him for the first time, I was kind of stammering. I said, you make movies, they live on forever. I just do these late-night shows, they get lost, they’re never seen again and who cares? And he looked at me and he said, [Albert Brooks voice] “What are you talking about? None of it matters.” None of it matters? “No, that’s the secret. In 1940, people said Clark Gable is the face of the 20th Century. Who [expletive] thinks about Clark Gable? It doesn’t matter. You’ll be forgotten. I’ll be forgotten. We’ll all be forgotten.” It’s so funny because you’d think that would depress me. I was walking on air after that.
Part of that sounds downright nihilistic. Nothing matters. We’ll all be forgotten. Who gives a shit about anything? Why bother living? It’s a kind of mindset religious people frequently attribute to atheists who aren’t living with a particular greater purpose.
But the flip side is that this mindset is actually liberating, as O’Brien suggests near the end. We don’t have to live to create some grand legacy; we can live to make the most of the life we have right now. O’Brien gets fulfillment by making people laugh — and even if he’s “forgotten” in a century, he will have helped a lot of people find joy in the midst of the mundane and depressing. Your own memory may fade, but while you’re here, you have a choice in how to live. Do you want to slouch through life or make the most of the incredible luck that brought you here? Do you want to hurt people or help them? Do you want to contribute to the betterment of the world or make others suffer as a result of your actions?
When you realize you can just enjoy this life instead of trying to position yourself for a better next one, a huge burden is lifted from you. That’s not nihilistic at all. That’s a relief.
By the way, Bart Campolo has a lengthier discussion about this idea in his latest podcast. Definitely worth checking out.