Forgettable

The thoughts of existentialism I mentioned in The Call of the Chuck-Will’s-Widow began as nothing more than a journal kept as a penmanship exercise. This raised the question of why anyone would bother to read it. In the short term maybe descendants interested in genealogy; in the long term maybe historians wanting to see what life was like for an average Joe in the early 21st Century. For anyone else, it would rank up there with watching paint dry.

That’s assuming it isn’t lost, discarded or destroyed. An ancestor long ago wrote some family information, but it was lost before he died. Even if he hadn’t lost it, would it have made it down through my branch of the family? If so, would it have survived the house fire that wiped out other records and mementos nearly a century ago? There’s no way to know. Anything we write, particularly a journal, are notes in a bottle tossed into the sea of time.

Even so, in my hubris I opted for a type of ink used by museums where longevity must be measured in centuries, and this also meant using journals with acid-free paper – paper manufactured with acid can yellow and crumble in mere decades. Then I realized that various places mentioned in my journal would likely be forgotten in just a few decades, and this led to making a family gazetteer, noting the latitude and longitude of various locations, from family cemetery lots to churches and schools that no longer exist. Since latitude and longitude are based on the sun and time, future generations should be able to find these places even if they don’t have some form of GPS.

It was then I felt the first chill of the winds of existentialism, for I realized there are places that only two or three of us remember. There’s even one or two places that I’m the last one to know where they are found. What was common knowledge in my childhood is almost lost.

Yet, as I was jotting down this information in a spreadsheet with intentions to write it down once compiled, and as I was thinking of writing what family history I know before it, too, is lost, that the gales of existentialism hit with full force: Why would anyone care? Maybe a descendant interested in genealogy, but odds are no one else. These aren’t the sites of famous battles, nor the home of a famous person. Once, studying a map only 110 years old, I saw forgotten communities long since reclaimed by the woods, settlements which no one living cared had ever existed. In the grand scheme of things they weren’t important enough to remember.

Once you reach a certain age, you know full well that time grows short for everyone. We are, as James wrote in Chapter 4, verse 14 of his epistle, “… just a vapor that appears a little while and vanishes away.” Sometime later the full impact of this hits: when a vapor vanishes, there’s nothing to mark it ever existed. And having long ago reached that age, that is no great revelation. Some people go to great lengths to leave a “legacy” so that their names will not be forgotten. The ancient Romans did as much, placing tombs and graves along the Appian Way so that passerby would see their names and likeness and at least know that they once were. Though some of these can be seen in our time, that is no guarantee of permanence. People have a habit of recycling materials.

All this I knew before that storm of existentialism. But I had never considered this extended to history as well. History had always been, well, history, even though a moment’s reflection bring ups archeology, which often studies cultures long forgotten. Think of it: five thousand years from now, all of our history will likely be forgotten, our culture known only by scattered of artifacts. No memories of Washington; none of Lincoln; the faces on Mount Rushmore, Stone Mountain, and Thunderhead Mountain in the Black Hills naught but enigmas.

Knowing that the history of an entire nation can be lost, what hope is there that the history of any one person or place will survive the erosion of time? Long before the United States is forgotten, any journal or family gazetteer or history or anything any of us may write will likely be tossed aside by future generations as insignificant and not worth preserving – and they will be right. All history is, at best, a temporary remembrance, fading to footnote to legend then to nothing at all.

With such musings it’s easy to move from existentialist to nihilistic thoughts, and if that was all there is, it would be right. But there is something that endures, something of ourselves that will remain even when all of this world is no more.

Those with no use for God scoff at this, deriding such things as “pie in the sky,” implying that we give up pleasures for what we will never receive. And yet they miss the obvious: nothing of this world is permanent, not our lives, nor our memories, nor even the planet itself. The missionary Jim Elliot summed it up best: “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that he cannot lose.”

Does the realization that my journal and family gazetteer will one day be no more mean that I will set them aside as nothing a useless endeavor? No. For even though they will not endure the ages, regardless of whether it’s written on acid free paper with archival ink or carved in granite, perhaps it will be of use to someone in generations to come, at least until such interest or the books are no more. Not even the world endures forever.

It’s good to know that something will.

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