We learn, we build, we produce, we stress, we fight, we strive, we struggle, we die. Our time here is temporary. The love we experience while alive is so moving. It seems so important.
This past Memorial Day was my first “real” memorial day. It was the first time I took the time to memorialize the people that have died after serving our country. My father was recently interred at the Riverside National Cemetery in California. It was my first time visiting his plot and seeing where he would finally rest. I knew the cemetery would be a zoo on Memorial Day. What I didn’t know was how it was going to impact me.
After about 30 minutes of traffic through the facility, which was only about .25 miles, we arrived at the fresh plots. There was no grass yet, and many of the spaces near my father’s were still awaiting their granite plaque. After absorbing my Dad’s space and all the feels, I decided to meander through the other graves in the vicinity. Each of the stones has space for a few lines of text that the families of the deceased can customize. It was interesting to read them. Many were short-sighted. Many were outright lies. While I know the intentions of the inscribers were good, they struck a strange chord with me. Perhaps I was looking at them from a different time perspective.
“Gone but not forgotten”
“Forever in our hearts”
“Forever and always”
It became apparent these inscriptions were for the immediate mourners, and not necessarily about the deceased. They were a coping mechanism in etched granite. The harsh reality is that in a hundred years, nobody in existence will remember. No one will care. For the greatest of us, stories may become legends, and legends may become lessons, but the attribution to the individual will cease. So why do we get so caught up?
We aren’t programmed to think of things on a long-term scale. We think about what is important in the scale of our lifetimes; the impact things will have relative to our existence. Is this wrong? Should we think bigger? I am not sure, but I don’t think the answer is black and white. I think the value comes from intentionally switching contexts.
When it comes to our lives, events can be hugely consequential. They can impact our experience. Things that are not a big deal on a macro level can be major when life only lasts an average of 78 years.
It seems the best thing to do is to check in with the long term to remind ourselves that the stress and the struggle, while real, is temporary. It might serve to put into perspective how meaningful something is. Then, when we switch back to looking at it in terms of our own lifetimes, we are able to decide whether we want to spend our limited time in anguish or to fast forward our thinking to a time when this castle has melted back into the sand.
I recently came across the poem by Percy Shelley, Ozymandius. It was about Rameses II, an Egyptian Pharaoh who ruled with an iron fist and was the most powerful in the land. The lore states he would measure his greatness by putting up his works for any challenger to out-do him. But now, his face can be found broken amongst a sea of sand.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
My current castle is the feeling that I am underperforming as related to my potential. I am constantly comparing myself to an arbitrary ill-defined benchmark of what I expected versus what I have produced. In the end, what I produce doesn’t matter. But perhaps the love that makes someone feel like I will always be remembered is where is should dedicate my energy.
Perhaps there is deep meaning to be found in the practice of these monks and the message they impart through the destruction of their masterpieces.