Forgotten Lives

March 23, 2015 § 3 Comments

I used to live a few blocks from a very old cemetery that I passed on my way to work. The headstones were worn down so much that the dates were hardly visible, and in many cases, the names were hard to discern. I often wondered who these people once were, as with the passage of time, nothing but a headstone now remained as a reminder that they ever had been here. We know nothing about them– who they loved, what they did, what their challenges were, what made them laugh or cry. We know nothing of those who cried at their graves and in whose hearts their memory remained. They, too, are long gone now.

This realization left me wondering about our legacy as human beings. While difficult to confront, we will one day all be in the same position. But even more critically, one day in the distant future, the country we live in will also cease to exist. When this happens, eventually even the lives of those we revere in our history books will be forgotten. One day, the planet on which we live will be gone. And on that day, there will be no trace that the human race ever was here. There will be no one left to remember any one of us. The old cemetery reminded me that our existence, as well as its memory, no matter how famous we may have been at one time, is always temporary. Yet we hear many eulogies describing the deceased as someone who will be remembered forever. While this is undeniably a very nice thought, a salve for the souls of the survivors, it is also undeniably false. The truth is that given enough time, a day will inevitably come when no one will remember any of us.

Not surprisingly, this was a very depressing thought at first! But as I considered it more carefully, it actually became the most life-affirming thought I had ever had. If nothing lasted, if even the most wealthy and famous people revered by our society are eventually forgotten with the loss of our history, then what is this life really about? There is no doubt in my mind that what it’s about is now. It’s about this very moment, and whatever miracle it brings. And no doubt, there are many of these miracles that happen to all of us in the course of our lives.

In the Japanese movie, After Life, the deceased are able to take only a single memory into eternity with them. One memory. I wondered what those people buried at the old cemetery would have chosen. I wondered what lovely story they would want to remember for all eternity, regardless of whether anyone else knew or cared about it. I wondered which of their precious moments they would want to relive again and again.

I thought about it myself for a bit–for me, the memory is the first time I saw my wife.

Whatever you decide, asking yourself which single memory you would choose is undoubtedly a great exercise. It takes you through the reels of your memory, and ultimately fills you with gratitude. In the process, you will note that the options are many, and the final choice is difficult. It’s a wonderful realization; a small walk through all of the priceless things in your life that money simply cannot buy. Best of all, it provides you with valuable practice at the essential skill of noticing everything that you have not been experiencing fully.

It’s a reminder to start paying attention— because you’ve already missed too much.

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