How The Past Pervades The Present

Responding to a recent post, Chris Crawford offered a beautiful image of how our lives might be meaningful despite our deaths. He writes,

… the meaning of one’s life resides in the story that one creates by living. When we die, those who knew us tell others the story we forged by coping with the vicissitudes of life. That story is condensed down to its essence and becomes part of the culture.

Think of our culture as a massive crowd of the ghosts of our ancestors and their lives. Then de-anthropormorphize that crowd, leaving just the stories behind. Our contribution to that crowd is the meaning of our life. It is permanent; faint echoes of the lives of our most distant ancestors ripple through our culture today. That is the ever-lasting contribution we make to humanity. It is measured not by personal success, but by the example we set.

We can quibble with a few details here. Perhaps others won’t tell our story or, even if they do, it will be forgotten. Maybe humanity and the universe won’t survive, so any positive contribution is fleeting.

Nevertheless, I think there is something profound about this image. The present—our science, art, philosophy, government, etc.—is largely the result of what people have done in the past. The good and bad deeds and ideas of our past reverberate into the present; to say nothing of the reconstitution of the genes themselves from one generation to the next. Mr. Crawford is right, “faint echoes of the lives of our most distant ancestors ripple through our culture today.”

Is the meaning of life to create a positive echo? Put differently, don’t we find meaning by being a part of the larger whole of humanity? I think that’s as close as we might get to there being a meaning to our lives. Here I think Mr. Crawford’s ideas echo those of Will Durant who wrote,

… do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.

If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself …

But can we go further and say that our stories and our love conquer death? Here we have no answers, we only have hope.

The hope that traces of our love will reverberate through time, in ripples and waves that will one day reach peaceful shores now unbeknownst to us.

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6 thoughts on “How The Past Pervades The Present

  1. This set of reflections strikes me as both backward-looking and forward-looking. Backward-looking by recognizing that all that preceded today has culminated in current culture; forward-looking because it anticipates the imprint we today will leave behind.

    This brings to mind the insights of NYU philosophy professor, Samuel Scheffler, who writes that, “However self-interested or narcissistic we may be, our capacity to find purpose and value in our lives depends on what we expect to happen to others after our death…Although some people can afford not to depend on the kindness of strangers, virtually everyone depends on the future existence of strangers.” My book, “Wellsprings of Work,” explores a dozen psychological and spiritual drivers of meaning in work and one of those– “Building a Brighter Future”– grows out of Scheffler’s insights.

  2. Past pervades present, yes, and present personifies past. As a sentient species, we best illustrate failure to learn from our mistakes. Dennett and others have touched upon this enigma.. Much of it, in my opinion, boils down to a short attention span: we forget major faux pas. Those are embarrasing and recall recurrent ‘what was I thinking’ moments. History hates thinkers—they say and accomplish things which upset the normal order . History hates change; punishes change agents and, in that sense, is mired in its’ own mud: history and time are *in cahoots*, time, the benign fair witness: history, the agitator—never satisfied with outcomes it supported. Ouroboros and the dog, after its’ own tail.Whether time is a fair witness could be debatable: it does not DO anything, only providing a substrate, agar or some other medium in a petri dish.

  3. Cris Crawford often comments here, and his comments never disappoint.

    ” For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.”

    I’m sure Chris Crawford or Will Durant are not the first people to elucidate this idea, but no matter, this is the essential ingredient for satisfaction in Life, self absorption will never lead to personal satisfaction, perhaps because the World extends beyond our minds even though we can only experience life in our minds, this makes Living an interesting conundrum!
    What the future holds, we know not, we have hopes and the promise of great things to come, these things aren’t here yet, until they come we are under the rule of Nature which has set the rules for life, so live and don’t be overly concerned with things that are beyond your control.
    I recently read somewhere that half of all people who ever lived are alive now, so that suggests that eight billion have come and gone already and that there at least eight billion more to go.
    The ‘Yokel’ playing ball with his friends isn’t concerned by his lack of importance or the fact that he will leave no ‘legacy’, he is a better person because of the place he was born into? I think not, but he does accept his place without any thought at all.
    People born into positions that reward their thinking and writing should do their thinking and writing and leave their work for posterity, what the future people do with it will be up to them.

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