We’re now well into fall, and each week our changing relationship with the sun is apparent. Few things mark the passage of time like the coming of spring and fall, the transitional seasons.
Perhaps it’s saying good-bye to warm weather and looking ahead to winter that reminds us of the boundary between this life and whatever lies beyond. This time of year we see traditional observances that honor the dead: The Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos) in Mexico, All Souls’ Day in the Catholic tradition, Samhain among people of Gaelic descent.
While these traditions make a point to remember friends and family who have passed on, many of us would like to forget that we, too, will die. After all, it can be terrifying to realize our own mortality—that at some point our time on this earth will end, and life will go on just as before, except for a very small group of people closest to us. Even those who will be shocked to hear of our passing will get used to the fact that we’re gone.
When faced with the reality of death, we may feel compelled to seek another kind of immortality: to be remembered. Not just once a year, as in these mid-fall celebrations, but forever. We want to “leave a mark,” to build a “legacy”—some fossilized impression of our existence that lasts long after we’ve taken our last breath.
We could be tempted to make it our life’s work to be remembered—perhaps for our generosity, or our achievements, or our creativity. We want people to think well of us when we’re gone. In that way, we imagine, we’ll still be around.
But even if we leave a great impression, soon everyone that knew us will be dead, and their memories of us will die with them. Even our eventual descendants—who will owe us their very existence—will consider us largely irrelevant, if they think of us at all.
If you have kids, you’ll be one of the most important people in their lives, though your central role will probably fade as they grow up and have a family of their own. If you have grandkids, you’ll probably be important to them. Your great-grandchildren, if you don’t get to meet them, may hear stories about you. And they’ll probably imagine that you lived so long ago, back before things really mattered. They won’t know what you were really like, or what color your eyes were, or your birthday.
Your grandchildren will certainly not tell their grandchildren—your great-great-grandchildren—about you. You may occupy a place on a distant descendant’s family tree for a class project, another name among many they don’t recognize, even though without you he or she wouldn’t be here. Your contribution to their existence will be long forgotten, like yesterday’s sand castles, almost as though you never were.
But wait, we might think, what about truly famous people? Of course we remember people like George Washington and Socrates and St. Francis of Assisi. If we’re successful enough or smart enough or devout enough, we can achieve immortality.
But can we? Of all the people who were famous during their time, how many do we actually know of? Even being president of the United States is no guarantee of being remembered: When was James K. Polk president? What did Millard Fillmore accomplish (besides the presidency)? Why did Franklin Pierce serve only one term?
We rarely recall or care about the biggest entertainment acts or politicians or sports heroes from a century ago, so why should humanity care about the “big deals” of our time in 100 years? And a thousand years from now, or 10,000 years, who will care about anything from the 21st century?
As big as we like to imagine ourselves to be, we are vanishingly small in the vast expanse of space and time.
Our relative standing in the universe is never more apparent to me than at the beach. The expanse of water stretching to the horizon mirrors the sky above, as our most important star sets and more distant ones appear. Figures far down the beach look as small to us as we look to them—insignificant.
And yet these figures who share our stretch of the beach—my wife and our three children—are as big to me as anything in this universe. In all the vastness of the heavens and the sea, I find myself in orbit with four other mini-universes, each born from a Big Bang and moving inevitably toward nonexistence.
For right now, we the living are huge. Of all the billions of organisms that will ever inhabit this planet, we’re the only ones alive at the moment. We matter to each other, and what happens between us matters deeply. This is our time.
And how often we forget what it means to be alive now! How many days have we treated casually, as though we had plenty to spare? Do we remember that today is the only this day anyone will ever live through? That we will never have this moment again with the people we love?
It’s hard to find a clearer expression of the sacredness in the ordinary than in Our Town by Thornton Wilder. In perhaps the best-known lines from the play, the character Emily who has died laments, “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. … Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?”
To which the Stage Manager replies, tragically, “No. (Pause.) The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.”
If we overestimate our importance to future generations, we’re apt to underestimate the importance of now.
Given the transience of our presence on Earth, how can we make the most of our limited time? And where do we find meaning if nothing ultimately lasts?
Hopefully it goes without saying that each of us must answer these questions for ourselves. In this context I think of a story by Leo Tolstoy called “Three Questions,” which I encountered as a children’s adaptation by Jon J. Muth.
The story is a parable that addresses three big questions: When is the right time to do things? Who are the most important people? And what is the most important thing to do?
Tolstoy concludes that:
- now is the only time that matters because it is the only opportunity we have to act;
- the most important person is whoever we are with at the time;
- and the most important thing we can do is to treat that person well.
Live in the present. Love. Help others to live.
While I’m sure we’ll be forgotten by the living, I have no idea how long our kindness to others lasts (or our cruelty, for that matter). It’s easy to imagine that our actions toward others reverberate in later generations, like ripples from a stone dropped in a lake. Maybe these reverberations decay over time, like a memory. Or maybe they persist, or are even amplified.
As I celebrate my 42nd fall, I hope to see that many again. If we’re fortunate we get to see 80 autumns, maybe even 90—and this is one of them. Enjoy all that it brings. Be with the people in your life. This is your time.