I wrote this post almost nine years ago. Still true.
May 20, 2007
I’ve arrived at that age where I read the obituaries in the paper each day. (Actually, I started years ago but it seems more age-appropriate now.)
After checking in with the important stuff (Is it anyone I know? Were they younger or older than me??) I glance through the rest of the article for clues about who they were.
This person left behind a huge family of grieving loved ones. This one outlived many others. This one founded an industrial dynasty. This one traveled the world for the love of adventure. This one worked tirelessly to help her fellow man. This one was an Elk, or a Moose, or a veteran. This one was an advocate for animals, for children, for the earth. This one wrote a book, made a movie, sang in their church choir. This one made toys for his grandchildren. And this one always had fresh-baked cookies and a seat at the table for those in need of a warm heart and a sympathetic ear.
Real lives, all. None for us to judge. We know too little, in the end, for that.
There is a strong central theme running through each one.
The desire for them to be remembered.
It got me thinking this morning:
Remembered for what?
We cannot ultimately control how we will be remembered. If we leave behind an impressive legacy, or enough loved ones, we may have a slightly better chance.
Even then, for how long? A few years? A few generations, if we’re lucky to have mattered that much to some? For centuries, if we are a Mozart, or a queen, or a tragic hero?
It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that we cannot always control the outcome of our actions in our lives. Some of the most noble actions have led to the most dreadful outcomes and vice versa.
Even the most evil act in the world may someday generate some good. Israel, the United Nations and the lifework of Elie Wiesel (“Too remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…”) are but a few legacies of the Holocaust.
If we cannot control the outcome, how do we decide what is worth doing?
All we can do is live our best intention, and make it manifest in our everyday lives.
The older I get, the more I realize how hard this is to do on all fronts–my personal life, my professional life, in my art and writing. I am really good at some intentions and frankly awful at others. And sometimes my failures are more outstanding than my successes, as my critics love to tell me.
In the end, the words I wrote for my aunt’s funeral sum it up the best for me. I scribbled them on a scrap of paper that morning, and it was lost in the shuffle on the way back home.
I said that all lives, great and small are precious.
That in the end, even small and quiet lives can touch the hearts of many others in ways we cannot foresee or fathom.
I remember saying that our days are surely numbered, and none of us knows the number of our days.
We can only live each one with as much passion, as much wonder, as much love, as much forgiveness, and as much courage as we can muster.
Because the world can be a harsh and frightening place, and it needs that from us. It needs our passion, and compassion. It needs our open heart.
It needs the very best from us. Our very best effort to make it a little brighter, a little better not only for our loved ones, but for everyone.
Even quiet lives and little acts of courage and kindness can have repercussions we cannot ever imagine Because the diary of Anne Frank is a legacy of the Holocaust, too.
For me, part of my very best effort means my art.
I realize my confusion and unhappiness has been because I could not see what its place is in the world. I’ve been doing my best to make sure it’s as “big” as it can be.
But then I have to let it go. I have to let it go out into the world and let it be what it is.
That is as it should be. It’s as much my child as my own flesh and blood. And like my children, I want it to shine as brightly as it can.
Like my children I must fight fiercely to protect it when it is vulnerable, and always out of love.
And like my children, it will ultimately find its own place in the world, beyond my expectations and intentions.
I cannot “control” what effect it has, or what it will mean to others, or even whether I will be remembered for it after I am gone. Just as I have no right to control how my children will craft their own lives, nor who they will marry, or how they will make their living in the world.
And like my children, I see more and more that this is a mystery to be embraced–not “handled.” There can be joy is in doing my best–then letting go of the outcome.
And trusting that even tiny actions of encouragement, acts of good intention, acts of creation, might leave their mark in the world long afte I and my work am forgotten.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Let go.