Monday, May 6, 2024

Subtle Immortality

once heard a brilliant homilist, Father Joseph Capella, say that there is a reason we are not called "humans doing" but "human beings." I'm not usually a fan of cutesy philosophical phrases, but this one is pretty profound, when you think about it. Maybe our purpose is to just be, after all. And maybe that is not so unproductive as it sounds. 

We humans tend to equate success with what we do and then we hope that those deeds will last. Percy Shelley made it clear that nothing we do will last. This is what he teaches us in his powerful poem "Ozymandias." 

I mean, the dude was the king of all kings. What do you need to do to be remembered in this world? If you can be the "king of kings" and wind up a pile of hot sand, what can Chris Matarazzo in New Jersey do to get a permanent monument erected to him? 

Who cares? 

Even the monuments are not permanent after a certain amount of time. There is simply nothing we can do, no matter how grand, in terms of social achievements, that will remain "standing" forever.

Pericles, in the philosophical statement above, is onto something: the only immortality we can achieve, in an earthy sense, is what I will call "subtle immortality." And that is sort of guaranteed, really; it's just that we are not aware of this quiet, nearly invisible permanence unless we dig deeply in the our own existences and that is exactly why you come here, right? To pull the rabbit out of the dark and mysterious hat? We will live on in the way we are, either conceptually or genetically, "woven into the lives of others." And that is pretty much it. We will be a thread in the tapestry of human existence, but not a discernable picture. We will be there, if unseen. We will be part of the structure, but we will never get credit.

That's ok, right? Unless you have the ego issue -- which we should all work to move beyond if we are to find true contentment, say centuries of philosophers.

The imperceptible will last. A thousand years from now, there is more likely to be a descendent of mine who rubs the back of his neck exactly the way I do when I think because of genetic connection; or, who will have been infected with a deep need for music, as I have, than there is likely to be a statue to my achievements. Even if I left a statue, it would eventually crumble as Ozymandias's entire kingdom did. But if a descendent puts his elbows on the table after dinner exactly the way I do because of genetics, I live on.

That said, I think Pericles was talking more about in the present; how we affect each other within a lifetime. I still think, though, we can expand that. I tried to teach my sons, for example, to be strong yet gentle men, because that is how I men should behave.

If they pass that down, etc, etc, effect on forever will be anonymous and tiny but permanent. I will have achieved -- as we all will -- a form of subtle earthly immortality, if more men, a thousand years from now, are gentle and strong than there are today.

(Hat Tip: Michael M for posting the Pericles quotation.)

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