The following piece was published today in Batavia Business, the monthly newsletter of the Batavia Chamber of Commerce.
“You were a little snappish” a friend told me, with a smile and glint in her eye, after a recent Chamber Board meeting. She was right…but I was hoping it wasn’t that obvious. While I may owe her an explanation, I actually owe it to myself.
A recent European trip to visit our daughter was intended to be no more than a tourist’s sojourn. As it turns out, the journey had unexpected consequences. Allow me to illuminate a few pieces of a puzzle that is emerging in my life—and then try to assemble them into some kind of coherent, yet still incomplete story.
One piece contains portraits of anonymous stone masons from the 13th century who spent their entire lives shaping and laying stones that became a cathedral in Nantes, France; an edifice that would not be completed for more than 20 generations. I stood in awe of their craftsmanship, and their dedication to a vision they had no hope of seeing to completion. Their contribution was essential…yet their identity forever lost.
While in Europe, and on my return, a second puzzle piece emerged from two intellectual excursions. In Europe I began a trek through a thousand-page volume called Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch. Since our return, I have been enjoying an 18-hour series of lectures entitled Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition by Professor Grant Hardy of the University of North Carolina.
The puzzle piece that forms as I study humanity’s wisdom traditions is that, like the stone masons of Nantes, untold millions of deeply philosophical humans contributed to the ideas that define and gird human wisdom and understanding, but for the vast majority, their contribution too, is essential, and their identity forever lost.
The third puzzle piece is defined by my experience of being immersed in cultures decidedly different from the one I left behind. As you walk the streets of European cities, it is common to hear a dozen languages—and see as many modes of dress—within a few short blocks. I became aware of just how much I don’t know about the world.
I arrived in Europe with some sense of being wise and worldly…and arrive in this moment having been reminded of my ignorance and naïveté.
The puzzle pieces strewn in front of me have something to do with the existential angst of being human. Most of us hope we will leave something behind that future generations will experience with admiration. I strive to make something of my time on this planet; from talking with people struggling not to end their lives, to teens struggling to understand theirs. Even the struggle to put these few words on paper is part of my search for meaning.
And yet, having come face-to-face with authors of our wisdom traditions and creators of monuments to human imagination, it is difficult not to view your own contribution with a skeptical eye. “Is this the best I could have done?”
The roots of this story are nourished by a growing awareness of my own mortality and imminent loss of my identity to future generations. Until I come to terms with that angst, I will likely remain “a little snappish.”
1 thought on “Existential Angst”
It gives me some strange comfort knowing that you, a person I look up to as being very wise and worldly, felt ignorance and naivete. There is not enough time for us mere humans to explore the world and learn a little bit about absolutely everything…and this is something I simply cannot cope with.
And since we are mortal, we must do what we can with where we are, and when needed…and I believe doing this will lead to leaving a little piece of our identity in future generations – a little piece of our holiness.
…but then again, what do I know? I am but a mere human- and a teenage one at that!