Post-Life: The Transience of our Presence

Few forms of art or scenery truly capture me. While I love beautiful paintings and photos from around our gorgeous planet, only scenes where once life roamed openly but now lays vacant give me pause. Whether beautiful or sparse in nature, if I feel I could see people living there, but are there no longer, I’m caught. I stare and see the lives of people moving in those places.

I was wandering Arlington, Virginia, this morning and ran across this building under active demolishment.  As I paused to look over the now-exposed interior of the building, I was first struck by the sight of a thousand or more exposed power and network lines hanging limp from the floors in which they were embedded.

As I looked deeper, I noticed that the elevator panelling halfway up the building was different from the rest. I asked myself why. Had it been damaged? Had the company on that floor merely wanted a different look? What caused that change to occur?

More importantly, I wondered about the tens or hundreds of thousands of people moving in and out of those elevators every day. The ones you see in the photo above you were used so often by people who won’t even remember what they looked like.

This building may have been built in the 1970’s, renovated in the 90’s and now is being destroyed for something new. I think creative destruction (destroying something old in pursuit of something new) can be a beautiful thing, but it still makes me ponder the people who may have spent entire careers in this building, earning a living caring for themselves and their families. Now, like the people and their career who once occupied these floors, this building will soon be gone. Perhaps it will be a small town center, a higher glass tower with new offices, or even a park.

Will people who visit whatever is built here ever pause and consider those who came before them? Who sat near them on floors that no longer exist? Whose kids came with them on sick days or for holiday parties? Whose people’s dreams of small businesses came and went, whether in growth or closing?

I once saw a painting in Colorado of an abandoned farmhouse and barn near the base of a grassy mountain ridge. A common sight along the base of the Front Range, this old house was bathed in late-afternoon sunlight and boasted warm shadows. Grass overgrew the yard where feet should have trampled it down. The piece was beautiful at first sight, but in thinking back about it, I was caught in the deepening concept of the image. You could almost see the farmer coming in from the barn each night; mother calling the kids in; children playing with the dog and chasing a chicken … Life once filled a farm which, by the sight of the painting, may have been abandoned a generation or more.

This is not the painting, but a clear illustration, all the same.

How long had people lived there where now they were gone? Who will remember them or any number of the American families who stretched across the frontier? Dead from disease or age or injury, no one remembers them more than a few generations. Might anyone even have a record of their names but the census bureau document buried somewhere in the district office in the 1800’s box?

There’s no despair in seeing their lives. Instead, I think of my own and of those around me. We spend so much of our time thinking of “impact.” What’s our “Impact?” I wonder if that’s a good question? At least, in American terms, we think of global impact. How can we “change the world?” Or, even worse, how can we “save the world?”

There is only one world to any of us — the people we meet and interact with in our every day lives. Even people like Elon Musk, who develop software like PayPal that serves tens of millions of people, only interact with a certain number of people in their day. The question is, was Musk’s eyes always out at the masses whom he’d never meet, or did he make the most of every personal interaction he has? I know virtually nothing about Musk, so this isn’t a commentary on him at all, but on our expectations of where our impact is in life.

All we could ever do will be soon forgotten when we pass away. Even with George HW Bush’s funeral at the National Cathedral today and his legacy as the 41st American president, he will one day be as forgotten as Millard Fillmore (He was a U.S. President. No, really.). 

President Millard Fillmore

In your own life, do you get caught up in wondering how you’ll “change the world?” The question is, how far out is your world? Do you need it to be miles and millions? Or perhaps just the people before you? 

At the end of our lives, the better measure is whether or not we made the most of each day. Did we pour ourselves into the lives of the people we met? Did we make the most of our walk of faith? Did we honor our own needs and that of others? Did we respect ourselves? Did we submit to others? Did we love? Not the ethereal “I love you” from other here, but in caring for each others’ needs? In supporting each others’ hopes? In showing a deeper love that comes from something greater than ourselves?

Today is all you have. You’re not guaranteed beyond this moment, so make the most of it!

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