I was bicycling through a city park the other day and came across a statue of a man named Adin Randall. I found out later that, predictably, he was a man of wealth who helped promote the city in its early years, and he donated the land on which the park now stands. My first thought, however, was “Even this man, who must have been very important in his day, is now basically forgotten.” It did not take too many more heart beats for the next, more personal, thought to come to mind. “Twenty years or so after I die, fifty tops, I will basically be forgotten.”
I was unsure how to feel about that stark truth. As a boy, like lots of children, I had fantasies about being famous—a sports star, even the President!—and to that boy the idea of being forgotten shortly after leaving this world would have seemed like failure. Now, I am accepting of the idea, though it begs the question of how to, or even whether to, believe that my life is significant.
Initially troubled by this question, I soon found an answer which brought me mental relief and spiritual joy. Even though no one will remember me deep into the 21st century, the effects of how I have been in relationship with people will live on. To the extent that I now show love and mercy to people and am a trusted companion, I will contribute to the healing of a broken humanity. Of course, it could cut the other way, but even knowing my potential to create greater darkness only fuels my desire to spread more healing than hurt and more compassion than indifference.
A line from an old song rings true here. The composer is probably now dead, and the title of the song I have long forgotten. But I remember it concludes, “The only measure of your words and your deeds will be the love you leave behind when you’re done.”
Pondering both my insignificance and my significance also brought to mind a bit of Jewish wisdom I heard long ago. Over two hundred years ago, a rabbi, Simcha Bunim, advised his people to carry two scraps of paper with messages on them, one for each pocket. The message on one should read, “You are but dust and ashes.” The other should read, “The universe was made for you.”
The rabbi’s advice: Read the “dust and ashes” part to stay humble, to realize that you are a very small part of a much bigger world, and that, yes, over time no one on earth will remember you. If those thoughts ever lead to despair, then reach for the other pocket. Reading “The universe made for you” will remind you that God has counted every hair on your head, and that God truly delights in you. That takes a leap of faith to be sure, but it is where faith wants to lead you. If that idea ever bends you toward arrogance, however, reach for the other pocket. And so on.
So, just how important are we? Not very, and infinitely! Neither thought scares or intimidates me any longer. Even made of dust and ashes, and someday not so long from now to become part of earth’s forgotten masses, I nonetheless live in God, and will never be forgotten by God.