In this installment in the Sandman saga, Neil Gaiman explores the brevity and impermanence of existence, both human and divine. We all accept the ephemeral nature of human existence, but do not want to believe that gods and the universe are also transitory. But if we accept that we are a reflection of the divine, and our lives are temporary, then it stands to reason that divine existence is also temporary, with a beginning and an end, as part of a cycle that is beyond our ability to understand.
Early in the book, Death comes to claim a man who lived an unusually long life. He asks Death whether he had a long life, and Death responds:
“You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less. You got a lifetime.”
Death’s answer is sobering. We are prone to compare our lifespan with others, but time is really just an illusion. We all have exactly the same amount of time on this plane—one lifetime. Even if you believe in the doctrine of reincarnation, the fact remains that for this incarnation, you only have a lifetime.
Later in the book, Dream has an encounter with Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex. Ishtar is working as an exotic dancer, and after meeting with Dream and Delirium, she decides to perform her sacred dance at the club. But before she begins, she shares with the club manager the secret of the birth and death of gods, knowing that he will not survive the dance to pass the secret on to others.
“I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there’s no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams… and what comes after, not even we know.”
What Gaiman is asserting here is that gods manifest from the collective unconscious, that the realm which the human psyche can only vaguely glimpse through myth and symbol is the birthplace of all things divine. And as long as these gods are nourished by our spiritual and psychic energy, they thrive; but once humans cease to feed a god or goddess the requisite energy, they wither and pass, returning again to the formless source.
Throughout the book, Dream and Delirium are on a quest to find their brother, Destruction. After they find him, there is a great scene where Destruction takes his brother and sister out under the stars, and uses the stars as a metaphor for the ephemeral existence of all things, divine and temporal.
“I like the stars. It’s the illusion of permanence, I think. I mean, they’re always flaring up and caving in and going out. But from here, I can pretend… I can pretend that things last. I can pretend that lives last longer than moments. Gods come, and gods go. Mortals flicker and flash and fade. Worlds won’t last, and stars and galaxies are transient, fleeting things that twinkle like fireflies and vanish into cold and dust. But I can pretend.”
This speaks volumes about the human condition. We move along the paths of our brief lives, pretending that we are a part of some grand, eternal thing. But it is an illusion, just like time. All lives, all existence, everything that is, is in reality just a fleeting twinkle, a flash that will ultimately fade and be forgotten. Knowing this does not make me feel disillusioned with life, but grateful for every moment that I am blessed with. Knowing that my life is but a flicker makes me want to cherish and make the most out of it. For me, this concept is not crippling, but empowering. I hope it has the same effect on you.
Cheers and blessings.