This is a largely philosophical rumination on the transience of memory. It is an attempt to be realistic in spite of the well-established fact that one of the most powerful human motivations is the desire to make a lasting impact, or, forbidding that, to continue as a part of an eternal or sustained community. Most of the world’s largest monuments are dedicated to this proposition. Religions conceptualize it and perpetuate this as a core belief.
But down here at ground level what happens if I were simply to cease to exist? [In the following reflections “they” are various others who might be remembering us if we were to cease to exist.]
WHO WOULD BE IMPACTED
3 circles of impact:
Critical – their existence would be impossible if we suddenly ceased to exist. Most of us have no one this close or critical to us. “Siamese twins” might. Occasionally in history some personality has built a cult-following with a suicidal level of dependency on the “essential one”. But the purpose of mature parenthood is to create awareness in children of their independence. Almost none of us are so “significant” to anyone that they cannot adjust to life without us, romantic fantasies notwithstanding.
Serious – their life would be heavily changed. Grief is proof that we are connected in deeply fraught ways. We may not even be aware how deep the connections are until they are severed. But most of us will be changed if certain people in our lives were to go away. These people can be a powerful motive for us to survive “in their behalf.”
Marginal – they would need to adjust. Honestly, a majority of the people in our life would be able to get along without us. Our departure will be noticed but the impact of it would be slight in terms of their need to do things differently from now on. Indeed, it can be a great comfort for someone facing death to realize “they’ll be fine.”
WHO WOULD NOTICE
Outside of the circles of those whose lives we impact are those who merely would notice our departure.
Nearest or dearest – they would be certain and quick to notice. Some of these would be waiting to hear, or attending gatherings in anticipation of our death if it was gradual. Close family would notice immediately. In some societies neighbors would be told and would take action.
Distant – they would be certain to notice but they might not hear immediately. Our death would “register” and be remembered. It would make an impression.
Conditional – they would notice if the conditions were right. Obituaries on social media provide those conditions as never before. Disrupted or dysfunctional families tend to break those conditions down. Big funerals for “important” people are for the purpose of making sure people notice.
Random – they might eventually notice even if they were not informed of our departure at the time. Lists of deaths by associations and organizations get the word out, but it’s uncertain who will pay attention.
Doubt – they would come to wonder what has become of us. These thoughts tend to be passing, and only if there was some specific reason would they try to find out what happened to us to cause a gap in connection.
There is a general agreement over the centuries in every culture that a person’s existence is significant and that significance continues. It can be described as a ripple moving to a distant shore. It is unpredictable. Stories of people remembering the action of a teacher in the past, for example, are comforting. Heaven and reincarnation are reassuring concepts.
But it is undeniable that almost all of us will be forgotten. Even our genetic contributions (if any) to future generations will be diluted to the point of inconsequence.
There are events that remind us of the unpredictability of life. The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center is such a reminder. There are also epochs in history in which death is a major topic. World War II was one of them. Even if the USA manages a full and complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and ends its last war for the time being, COVID has taken center stage reminding us that we are mortal. We may not like it, but mortality trumps all.
So, what are we living for? That is, why? Ah, that is the challenge, to discover the purpose of living. No one can do it for you. For every one of us the conclusion is unique and fluid. At 18 my purpose was one thing, and at 81 it is vastly different. As I have collected life stories it is obvious no two of them are the same. It is only when meaningfulness-at-this-time ceases that motivation for living begins to fade.
Today is the gift you have been given, and the people in your life and you in theirs are where meaningfulness gestates.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.