Most writing is the scratching of an insatiable itch for immortality. Alas, the more written, the greater the itch.
Since reading Dee’s most recent work, Autobiography of a Restless Mind, I have been pondering the human desire for immortality, and wondering if, perhaps, we understand immortality inaccurately.
2.2 million books were published last year. As of this writing, 152 million blogs pepper the Internet. Two are added every second…63 million per year. WordPress, one of many blogging sites, documents 2 million posts every day. And these figures ignore journals, periodicals, newspapers and editorials.
If Dee is correct, the itch for immortality is indeed insatiable and growing at an unprecedented rate.
It would be convenient to claim I am unmotivated by Dee’s itch, but it would be disingenuous. Who amongst us, when mortality tugs at our coattails, can make an honest claim to nary a qualm? Has it always been so?
The period from 800 B.C.E to 200 B.C.E., often referred to as the Axial Age, was a time of great change. Prior to the Axial Age it was impossible to imagine individuals separate from their tribe. With no stored wealth, and each day’s survival in question, the effort of every member was essential. If the tribe was to survive, each person’s gifts and capacities had to be discovered, honored and engaged. Every person mattered.
With the advent of the Axial Age, cities emerged and wealth accumulated. Families and individuals could, for the first time, survive independent of the tribe. Wealth lubricated, if you will, families from many of the day-to-day terrors that made the lives of their ancestors so precarious. But with life becoming safer and a tad easier, individuals and their unique gifts became less important for survival. Perhaps for the first time in our history, individuals might have begun to wonder if they were necessary.
The Axial Age was also an astounding time in the development of human wisdom. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle laid the groundwork for much of the West’s rational, scientific views. The Buddha proposed his ideas for reincarnation, and an end to human suffering through non-attachment. Jainism gave us the principles of non-violence, karma and asceticism. The Upanishads, the Tao, the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Bhagavad Gita were written during this period. Confucius, Archimedes, Elijah and Isaiah are also considered to be of this age.
Is it coincidence that, facing the possibility this life might be meaningless, desires for immortality emerged, and definitions and descriptions flourished? For Buddhists, immortality was realized by reincarnation through many lives, eventually reaching an unending state of Nirvana. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) found comfort in a single life with a heavenly destination in which we could spend eternity in bliss reunited with our maker. The Greeks found a form of immortality through thumos, recognition and fame that would secure a person’s place on the lips and in the hearts of future generations.
If there is any veracity to the claim that riches and an easy life can make self-worth elusive, our craving for immortality is exacerbated by our unimaginable collective wealth, and our belief that medicine, science and technology will make life safer, easier and perhaps even everlasting. It’s paradoxical I admit, but, as life becomes safer and easier, could it mean that each of us matters even less? And if so, might the quest for life’s meaning become excruciatingly difficult, elusive and painful?
I know this: I talk to many people for whom life has become unbearable for one simple reason—their life has no meaning. They have given up the search for the gifts that make them unique and magnificent. The tribe no longer needs them.
So I wonder. Is it possible the only immortality—unending existence—that truly matters, is in discovering our gifts and being fully exhausted of them by life’s end…knowing they have been given in service to the human tribe. Perhaps immortality and humility emerge from gently etching our irreplaceable footprint on the human journey as the tribe searches for a sustainable path into the future.
I wrote this piece shortly after my father passed away in 2005. A young friend from Operation Snowball lost her father this week to cancer. I reprint this here in honor of Megan Scott and her father. The footprints you are leaving, Megan, are filled with love and courage. You are very special.
“But Roger,” she said with tears in her eyes, “it feels like I am throwing him away. I can’t throw him away.”
In the months following my father’s death, my mother, God bless her, spent many hours cleaning out the house—going through my dad’s things and making painful decisions about what to do with what often feels like mountains of personal effects. While she did much of this in solitude, because my father and I were partners in a consulting practice, she wanted me with her as we approached the file cabinet that contained most of his written history. We faced thousands of articles, pictures, certificates, awards, letters, notes and other memorabilia. Knowing we couldn’t keep it all—it’s hard enough to go through it once—we discarded all but the most sacred reminders of his journey. But there were times when, I admit, it felt as though pieces of him were being discarded with the tattered fragments of paper.
But then I recalled what I learned in the days immediately after he died, during which hundreds of people came to tell us stories of how they were changed by something my father did. I learned of a neighbor, dying from ALS, who my father picked up every morning so he could go to church, and for coffee at McDonalds afterwards. I met a recently widowed church elder. He told my mother tearfully, “Just a few weeks ago, Wally told me he loved me. You have no idea how much that means.” I learned of the church secretary who loved how my dad would leave a quarter in the office every time he took a cup of coffee. “No one else ever does that,” she told us.
These are a few of the footprints my father left behind. You can’t put those in a file folder and you can’t throw them away at the end of a person’s life. It is in the changing of others that we continue to live on in this world—not through the awards and certificates we file.
It’s vain I know, but I too have file folders stuffed with memorabilia about the “whats” of my life. Having experienced both the “whats” and the “whos” of my father’s life, I now wonder about who I have been, who I am today, and who I will choose to be in my future—in the next decade, the next year, the next week…even in the very next moment. I wonder if the footprints I am leaving are ones that will leave the world a more generous and joyful place.
That becomes one last footprint my father left in my life—one I can never throw away.