Note: The Following was published in January 2011 in Neighbors of Batavia Magazine. I recently realized it never made it to my blog.
As I approach 60, the moment of turning the calendar from one year to the next gives me pause. I wonder if I will have left a legacy. Will I have helped moved humanity forward, or might my life have been, as a dear friend once fretted, a throw-away line? I ponder the best way to spend the 365 days I gently step into on January 1.
In those moments, an image painted by Hendrik Willem van Loon in his wonderful book, The Story of Mankind, comes to mind:
High up in the North in the land called Svithjod, there stands a rock. It is a hundred miles high and a hundred miles wide. Once every thousand years a little bird comes to this rock to sharpen its beak. When the rock has thus been worn away, then a single day of eternity will have gone by. We live under the shadow of a gigantic question mark. Who are we? Where do we come from? Whither are we bound? Slowly, but with persistent courage, we have been pushing this question mark further and further towards that distant line, beyond the horizon, where we hope to find our answer. We have not gone very far.”
I find this image of a single day of eternity compelling. In the face of an eternity this unimaginable, I feel small and insignificant.
I recall standing in the presence of the Giant Sequoias in California and marveling that many have lived thousands of years. Many were alive through the entirety of the Current Era. They lived through the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, the Middle Ages and the rise and fall of the Divine Right of Kings. To them, the ink on our Declaration of Independence has yet to dry. American representative governance, the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War happened moments ago. And yet, even to them, van Loon’s “single day of eternity” is unimaginable.
Then I imagine living the life of a mayfly—often a single day. As you begin to mature by mid-morning, you wonder about the species’ evolution. You see so many ways in which it falls short of the enlightened state of which you dream. By midday you are working tirelessly for the betterment of your fellow mayflies. Within hours, as you age, you become distraught because, in spite of your lifetime of dedication and effort, little has changed. The species is no less selfish…its lifespan hasn’t increased…there is no less violence between you and those with which you compete for resources. You wonder if there is any hope for the future. I imagine that species is awed that a human such as myself has witnessed tens of thousands of their generations.
We might witness the mayfly and smile. How silly to imagine, that in such a short lifetime, an insect could hope to actually witness evolution! Then I wonder if the Sequoia looks at us with the same mix of wonder, whimsy and pity.
And yet, as humans, we live with the hubris to imagine that in our lifetime, or certainly within a few generations, we will experience the advancement of our species into something significantly new and wonderful. Not only do we expect to have witnessed advances in evolution, we believe we will have personally contributed to forward movement so significant we can actually witness growth. Then, as we age, we become distraught because, in spite of a lifetime of dedication and effort, little has changed. The species is no less selfish…its lifespan hasn’t increased…there is no less violence between us and those with whom we compete for resources. We wonder if there is any hope for the future.
If it is naive to expect my life will make a noticeable difference in the course of human history, what then? How should I decide what to do, how shall I spend the moments I am given in the year ahead?
One answer to that question, and there are many, rests in the flapping of the wings of butterflies. The Butterfly Effect tells us that a minute air disturbance in one part of the world can, through a complex and unpredictable chain of events, foster a tornado halfway around the globe. And the butterfly that set the future in motion has no idea of its impact thousands of miles away and months or years later.
The future unfolds based on “initial conditions.” An infinitesimally small change in this moment, can, as a “single day of eternity” transpires, allow an entirely new, dramatically different future to blossom.
So what I think about, as I step into the 365 days that begin on the first of January, is what initial conditions am I creating in this moment? Is the wisp of air I am disturbing filled with joy, kindness and generosity, or anger and hate? Am I aware of the pain and heartache in the face of the stranger next to me, or am I focused on me and my needs? What can I do in this moment to give the future the very best foundation on which to begin its next “day of eternity”? My stay on this Earth is far too short to witness the impact of the initial conditions I set, so all I can do is have faith that the future will best be served if I serve this moment in the most loving and attentive way I can.
So for me, life is a constant struggle to meet, and negotiate with, each and every moment. As I approach the next, I hope to serve it the best I can as I inhabit it, and it inhabits me. And then, perhaps, I must simply trust that the “single day of eternity” that that moment and I become part of will take care of itself.