The Influence of One Life (Revisited)

“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)

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About ten years ago, 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’d like to think so), and I would be missed by some for a while. But unless I left something behind that continued to represent my time here, 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 are children and grandchildren. Who can say what they will do and what their lives might mean to those who come after? Some of the choices my husband and I have made were not what we would have chosen if we didn’t have children to consider. We would look at each other and say, “This really isn’t about us, it’s about them.”

Most of us experience a profound, wired-in longing to bring children into this world; we want our families and memories to maintain a legacy. 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 of Aristotle and Einstein, Peter and Paul, Augustine and Aquinas, Bach and the Beatles, Da Vinci and Van Gogh. We know them through their works, some of which have endured for many centuries.  

Renowned 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.” *  

I agree with Sachs that each unique life is irreplaceable and inimitable, and carries its own worth, with or without an enduring influence. But Sachs was an ambitious and accomplished man. His philosophy may not have been quite so sanguine if he hadn’t made significant contributions to 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 in light of a biblical perspective, it seems rather limited. The Bible gives us “the rest of the story.” The story of how our individual stories connect with the overarching story of God.

The Psalm quoted above continues with this corollary to its 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). Where secular philosophers disdain any belief in a life beyond this one, the Bible declares the reality of eternal life on almost every page. It is a glorious life of covenant relationship with our Creator and King.

We want to make a difference. Having been given much, we feel a need to give back somehow. We keep believing that our efforts are not in vain, for today and after we’re gone.

So we should go ahead and have our babies, write the book, paint the painting, sing the song, teach the class, and above all, love people wherever and whenever we get the chance. Let’s bring joy, insight, comfort, and encouragement to those around us. Let us be fruitful in this strange land, like the Jewish exiles were instructed to do in Babylon.

We can be comforted knowing that the Lord knows we won’t 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 our works.

God loves us because it is his glory to love. In response, we acknowledge to all who will listen that God’s influence through the generations is more important than ours. Our highest, noblest contribution is to proclaim his goodness to all generations—

Let each generation tell its children of your mighty 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).

He himself is our common thread in every era, worthy of praise and honor in every nation, in every generation of every family, in every soul.

Without end.

(revised from an essay previously published July 28, 2019)

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