I have no idea who the people in this photo are. I don’t know the context of it, either. I know as much as you know.
This picture only exists in one place. It can’t be google image searched. It isn’t in anyone’s photo albums on Facebook. It isn’t anywhere except right here on the table beside me as I write this.
So who cares? No one, and that’s the point I plan to arrive at shortly.
When I look at this, I wonder if it’s a joyous homecoming or a bittersweet sendoff, as the pic is clearly centered around the young man in the military uniform. His proud family surrounding him, a friend or neighbor holding the camera, a bubbly, energetic young child held in place by her mother long enough to preserve whatever this moment is for posterity…
And now it’s about 70 years later and all of the subjects are probably dead.
We ascribe so much grandiose importance to our brief tenures on Earth. We’re so self-involved and we can’t imagine the world continuing to turn if we were to suddenly cease existing.
Certainly there must be something after all of this. There has to be, or else there’s nothing, right? And that doesn’t jibe well with all of the super important things we think about ourselves. We invent and follow entire systems of belief designed to help us believe we are a part of something larger and more important. Permanent.
I don’t honestly know what comes after this life, but I do know that in about 100 years’ time, the photo above will be you. It’ll be me. We’re a flash in the pan, all of us. We are drops of water in the vast ocean of humanity. All of our little day-to-day trials and tribulations, they ain’t about shit.
Each of these people had his or her own unique hopes, dreams, feelings, secrets, tastes, etc. They laughed, they lived, they loved, they died.
And when they died, they had funerals. People mourned them. They were missed, until those who missed them died. And now no one remembers them. No one cares.
Oddly enough, I find this a somewhat comforting thought. I’m afraid to die, but people have been dying since, you know, forever. So big deal, right? Who cares? My death means absolutely nothing in the grand scheme of things. It’s no big loss. It only feels like a big loss because I’ve made it one in my mind, because my world is me. I could die tomorrow and the same cars I sit behind at the same stoplights every day on my way to work at 6am would still be there. The same shows would air on TV that night. Kids all over town would still go to soccer practice. Chili’s would still be packed with tired parents and screaming children. The show must go on.
These people were once something, and now they are nothing. Were they ever anything, though? Was I ever anything? Does any of this mean anything?
It does mean something. If we live our lives as good people, and if we do the best we can to make good, moral decisions, and teach our offspring to do likewise, we help to perpetuate the species and steer it in positive directions. Even though we are forgotten, we’ve still left our mark.
We remember Hitler, but we don’t remember the men who fought him. There’s too many of them. We remember their efforts as a whole, but the individuals themselves are now part of a larger, collective thing, an abstract concept.
We remember Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and Richard Ramirez, but I couldn’t name a single one of any of their victims.
We can either plant a tree before we leave, or we can burn down a forest.
Hitler burned down a forest, but those who fought him planted individual trees to make another one.
We still marvel at the trees planted by Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Freddie Mercury, Charles Dickens, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, jr, Joan of Arc, Beethoven, Alfred Hitchcock, Theodore Roosevelt, and thousands of others who are long gone but not yet forgotten.
Someday, though, long after humanity’s flame has has been extinguished, and the trees we planted lie rotten and forgotten, reclaimed by the earth they sprouted from, this tiny sphere we inhabit will continue to turn. And nothing anyone has ever done will matter to anyone.
Still, that being said, I want to be amongst those who created rather than destroyed. I want to leave something beautiful behind. I hope that I do.