The Influence of a Life

“The honor of man is short-lived and fleeting. There’s so little difference between man and beast, for both will one day perish. Such is the path of foolish men and those who quote everything they say, for they are here today and gone tomorrow!” (Ps. 49:12-13, TPT)

This Psalm caused me to remember and reflect on an experience ten years ago, when my extended family gathered to bury my mother’s remains at the family cemetery plot in upstate New York. The little country graveyard was behind the church where my grandfather, a Presbyterian minister, had served as pastor many decades earlier. He and my grandmother were buried there, along with my mother’s brothers and their wives who had passed before her.

As I stood with my siblings and cousins in the middle of that circle of grave markers, I was overwhelmed with a sense of how fleeting is a single life. We were honoring our ancestors, but after this brief gathering, who would tell the stories of these people?

I was burdened with the realization that if we did not intentionally share with our children and grandchildren who these people were, and what mark they made on this world, in only one generation no one on the planet would remember that they ever existed. Even if we did share the stories, would our children pass them on to their children and grandchildren? Not likely.

This was one of those moments of existential ache, knowing that my life and death would probably be much the same. There might be a crowd at my funeral (I like to imagine so 😊), and I would be missed by some for a while. But unless I left something behind that continued to represent me, before long there would be very few who would say that their lives were impacted by my brief sojourn on the planet.

In a worldly sense, what can a person leave behind that continues to exert influence on future generations?

Of course, there’s the issue of children. Who can say what they will do and what their lives might mean to those who come after?  There is a profound, wire-in longing in most of us to bring children in to this world so that our families and memories can maintain continuity. We humbly acknowledge that we are merely one rock in a great stream rippling through the generations.

Then there are accomplishments—books written, songs composed, theories advanced, useful objects invented, paintings painted, buildings designed. These can outlive us and stretch our influence far beyond our lifetimes. Think Aristotle and Einstein, Peter and Paul, Bach and the Beatles, Da Vinci and Van Gogh. We know them through their works, some of which have endured for many centuries.

Physician and writer Oliver Sachs, wrote this when he knew he had a very brief time left–

“My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.” *

He seemed to be saying that each unique life, simply because it is irreplaceable and inimitable, carries its own worth, with or without an enduring influence. But he also admits to being very ambitious and accomplished. He may not have been quite so sanguine in his philosophy if he hadn’t produced some books and advancements in his field that would represent him when he was gone. He had hedged his bets.

I can appreciate to some extent the secular humanistic perspective Sachs represents, but I am the Bible girl who always wants to hear “the rest of the story” from within the pages of the book. This is the source of my philosophy and my practice, and it never disappoints.

The same psalmist who penned the psalm cited above gives provides this corollary to his ominous warning to the foolish and ungodly: “But I know the loving God will redeem my soul, raising me up from the dark power of death, taking me as his bridal partner”  (Ps.49:15, TPT).

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Here is the difference—where secular philosophers disdain any belief in a life beyond this one, the Bible declares the reality of eternal life on almost every page (particularly in the Psalms and the New Testament).

I want very much to make a difference, and I bet you do too, dear reader. Having been given so much, I want to give back a lot. I keep believing that my efforts are not in vain, for this moment and after I’m gone. I’ll write that book, paint that painting, sing that song, teach that class, love on some kids whenever I get the chance. Mostly I want to bring joy, insight, comfort, and encouragement to those around me.

I’m comforted knowing that the pressure isn’t on me to do everything and finish everything perfectly. God accepts and cherishes us because of our trust in him as a Father. He is in the process. He celebrates our accomplishments and our good influence on others, but he loves us way, way beyond them.

Another psalm speaks of God’s influence through the generations, to both biological and spiritual children. This is more crucial to recognize than our own individual influence. Our role is to proclaim his goodness throughout all generations—

Let each generation tell its children of your might acts; let them proclaim your power…Everyone will share the story of your wonderful goodness; they will sing with joy about your righteousness…they will speak of the glory of your kingdom; they will give examples of  your power…for your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. You rule throughout all generations” (Ps. 145:4,7,11,13, NLT).

He himself is our common thread in every era, worthy of praise and honor in every nation, in every family, in every soul. Without end.

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