I’ve been thinking about my mortality lately, and if that’s not a set-up for a cliched blog post, I don’t know what is. I’m not contemplating it in the bucket list sense (what I want to see/do/eat before I die) or in the morbid sense (how many years I have left), but as it relates to my work: what on earth is going to survive on earth from all this anxious kerfluffle?
I work hard, writing my own stuff and editing other people’s stuff and drafting website maps and designing enewsletters and developing communication strategies. Most days I enjoy some of it and some days I enjoy most of it. But what is going to come of all this effort when I’m no longer moving these letters around? My articles, what few survive in print, will be yellowed and curled and as forgotten as many other similarly agonized-over 500-word pieces from decades past. The enewsletters will be deleted. (Let’s not kid ourselves; they already are.) The marketing ideas will be obsolete, the websites will have been redesigned ten more times, and this blog will be long gone. I will not win the Nobel prize or the Pulitzer prize or probably even the Automotive Poetry Contest (yes, this is a thing). I will not change the world.
We all face this, at some point. The writer of Ecclesiastes did (although, ironically, his words have lived for centuries). “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?” he asks, before eventually deciding it’s best to just obey God and try to “find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him–for this is his lot.” There is value in working hard, he concludes, but we should accept that much of our work is temporary and not expect to find the deep meaning of life there or even expect much of it to survive us.
Ecclesiastes is not a book to read while depressed.
Of course we must do things; if we all just decided to stop teaching and organizing and building and cleaning and sorting and operating, if we no longer ran the machines and sold the appliances and chopped the potatoes and answered the calls, the world would pretty quickly sink into chaos. It’s not that our work doesn’t have value, but that much of the value is fleeting. This past weekend I spent hours going through decades-old files of receipts and memos and “Singspiration” song lists and potluck plans and Christmas-pageant-punch-recipe-signup-sheets in preparation for our church’s 50th anniversary. Fleeting value.
At the same time, some of it does matter. Very occasionally I’ll get a message from someone who’s been touched by something I wrote or who has changed her thinking or adjusted his attitude. The enewsletter copy I compose for that nonprofit client leads to a new donor who makes the financial difference that allows for one more book or mission trip or church plant. The article I write profiling a new ministry approach inspires a church hundreds of miles away to try something similar and because of their innovation someone comes to church and hears about Jesus. It does happen once in a while, just as once in a while you touch a student’s life in a significant way or you preach a sermon that changes a heart or you write software that solves a problem. So I do my daily round of edits and emails, giving it my best and wrestling with how to find meaning and purpose when I don’t know which 1% matters and which 99% is just more chasing of the wind.
This, of course, leads us to another cliché: a realization that whether it is in my work or in my life (and they are not the same), the only thing that will live on past year 2056 is what directly affects other people, especially the people a generation behind. The lyrics of Children Will Listen from Into the Woods haunt me:
What do you leave to your child when you’re dead?
Only whatever you put in its head
Things that your mother and father had said
Which were left to them too.
Careful the things you say
Children will listen…….
Careful the spell you cast
Not just on children
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you can see….
Someday I will be gone and all that Miles and Nina will have from me is whatever I “put in their head”—whatever wisdom and encouragement and experiences I’ve given them during my short years here, which in turn came from my parents and grandparents, who got it from theirs. With any luck, that will trickle out occasionally into their relationships with their own children (or, bless everyone in advance, stepchildren) who will then, perhaps, absorb enough of it to positively affect their kids.
This doesn’t seem like enough. So a few things I write will change something for someone, and a few happy or “teachable” moments with the kids will stick in their memories long-term, and the rest of it is just setting up the pins and knocking them down. This is a hard thought. At this point I take the writer of Ecclesiastes out for drinks.
And yet here we are, with me publishing another blog post—my 784th. It may encourage or challenge or generate thought for someone. It might not. If it does, I might know about it. I probably won’t. Listening to Miles’s stories today while driving him to marching band practice and telling him that he’s smart and he’s loved may be something he remembers someday, or (more likely) something that oozes into who he is for someday later. Or it might not. But I’ll publish the post and I’ll encourage Miles and I’ll trust that some of it matters. And I’ll remember another cliché—there is much to be said for finding joy in the journey.