I sit in a chair writing on a Friday when I don’t have anywhere to be and no kids or visitors. Without much warning, rain starts pounding on the windows and the trees across from me are swaying and shaking their leaves as lightning and thunder intermittently pulse. And then like an Irish day when one might experience every season before lunch, the storm recedes to nothingness and the sun returns from behind the clouds. A bird returns to the feeder.
If I do nothing, the world simply happens. This is terrifying. The world simply doesn’t need me, not really. Of course, sometimes remembering that the sun will rise and the sun will set puts a crisis in perspective. The inevitability of the world’s mechanisms can be a comfort. But sometimes the unwanted actions of nature or man can remind us that we aren’t just unnecessary, but also small. Maybe even completely helpless.
Once, in the before times, I was driving back from a conference and calling into a meeting. I caught a thought as it flitted through my mind, which I recognized but had never named.
What if they forget about me?
I wasn’t on video and the world hadn’t yet made remote meetings the default. They weren’t asking me much or allowing any room to jump in. I’ve been on the other side. I knew it was not intentional or indicative of my impact on the company. But for that split second, the question opened up into a lifetime. I saw that much of my aggression or assertiveness (depending on the day) was probably related to this belief. I may be forgotten.
Today, the wind and the rain reminds me of this truth again. Last week it was guns in schools. But it doesn’t matter, because it is true. We are blips living in an uncertain timeline, without much control over when it all ends.
When we learned about forces in high school, we learned that every force has an equal and opposite force. Some of us with awesome teachers stretched this principal to its most entertaining conclusion: not only does the Earth exert a force on you, your mass exerts an equal and opposite force on it. How can this be? Wait, we cutups in the back of the room wanted to know. Does that mean if all us humans jumped in the same place, we could pull the earth? Maybe, my teacher said with a sly grin, you’ll have to do some math to find out. Then another challenge: ever push something away from you on the ice and go careening backwards yourself?
It can be tempting (if you are like me) to force ourselves on the world. Not for our own sake, but to make some kind of dent, to make a change, to make something better for having existed. I used to call it kicking up dust. I knew how to drum up conversation, a new idea, project, or undertaking. And I often did this at times of feeling my lowest. Conjuring up ideas of impact brought relief and joy from the distress of staring into the abyss of existence.
Now that my energy is more constrained, I’ve seen the costs to myself and the ones I love when I wrap myself so completely around a new thing. In the past, I would just act making it impossible to notice why the urge existed in the first place. Now, I recognize my small but valiant attempts to heave a big rock and wiggle the Earth’s rotation even if only detected by the most sensitive tools.
I want to matter. I want this matter of my bones and flesh and mind of circuits to mean something, to make something, to be of consequence.
Most of us have no desire to be famous, but we long to be seen or heard if only in one little corner of the universe. Why else would there be so many trade associations? So many niche magazines at the back of the Books-A-Million?
So, what do we do on the days when the world will go on spinning no matter how we will it otherwise? How can I withstand the temptations to ignore the fleeting insignificance? How do we keep screaming in the wind of powerful people and the influence of money when we wish to make our country safer? Or try to stop climate change?
There will be times to give, times to receive, times to live, and time to die, the wisdom writer reminds us. And somewhere, I have to find a way to draw from this deep well of desire to do something great. Or maybe just something small. Maybe wear orange today. Dance on a rooftop to an insanely true song. Write a few more words into the chasm.
Let’s hold hands and all decide to jump at once and pull the Earth our direction just a little. Because as Bear Rinehart wrote, we won’t be here forever, just a moment then we’re through.