“… and one of these days you will know a world in which I no longer exist.”
“I don’t know that I can imagine that.”
“Possibly not. I have always been part of your world. Before you were born, you could say that I was your world… all your physical experience, at least, came through me…”
“Hmm. Hadn’t thought of it quite that way before…”
“…so a world without me is not within your experience, and might be as hard for you to imagine as a world without you. No point of reference.”
The subject of mortality had been brought to our attention by the passing of a neighbour and friend, a woman whose kindness and wisdom had brought something special to the world. The simple Quaker funeral of a shared silence had been both beautiful and moving, as we each turned our thoughts to how her presence had changed our lives, making the moment one of gratitude and recognition instead of an occasion given solely to grief. Her actions had been the small ones of every day, her life outwardly unremarkable… and yet she had made a huge difference to the lives of her family, friends and neighbours. From her funeral to a deeper conversation was not a big step.
It was an interesting discussion. Because most of us live what we consider to be rather ordinary lives, we do not realise how big an impact we might make. We seldom think about how different things might be for others had we not been around. What might, or might not have happened had we never been.
For a start, how do you imagine not being? You might imagine your own demise… and, in melodramatic moments, there may even be a vague satisfaction or discontent when you consider the aftermath of that event within your intimate circle. A sort of ‘you’ll be sorry when I’m gone’ scenario… even though you will not be there to know about it. You may be able to picture a future from which you are missing… but when you do so, you are looking at it through your own eyes and therefore it is a false image… you will not be there to see it. The ‘you’ you are now will no longer exist.
Even less can we conceive of a world in which we have never been. Any attempt to subtract ourselves from the reality we know, will have so many ramifications that such a world truly is impossible to imagine. The thousands of lives we have affected or will affect, directly or indirectly, from the moment of our conception, down the generations, to the furthest ends of time, would each of them be changed had we never come into being. Many of those lives might never exist, were we never to have been. Subtract just one person from existence… not by death, which is a natural part of life, but by erasing them from the annals of time altogether… and the whole course of human history would inevitably change.
It is difficult to accept that any one of us could be that important. We are conditioned to think otherwise… we are, most of us, too small on the stage of history to play much of a part, or so we believe… and yet every one of us is a necessary link in the chain of human being as we know it. The smallest action of least of us can create a domino effect through countless lives and generations, and we have no way of knowing where the chain reaction might end or what it might ultimately inspire.
Does it serve any practical purpose to know that one of our descendants, generations into some unknown future, might find a cure for cancer or invent the device that will damn the world? Perhaps not… we cannot control the future to that extent. We can only help shape the possibilities that come within our reach. And that we can do.
We are not only essential links in the chain of existence, but we are, inevitably, each of us teachers too. The way we live our lives sets an unconscious example that may inspire others, or against which they will react and rebel. The way in which others react is out of our control… only our own choices and attitudes are within it, and most of those are our own reactions to or against the actions of others. It is a complicated web of interaction, and we are responsible for our own thread within it.
We may never know how our actions affect the lives of others. A simple smile may light up an otherwise dark day for a stranger in the street, a small kindness may alter a mood, every word we speak and every action we take may be an example for someone else. We do not need to know what effect our lives may have in the greater story of humanity, but we owe it to ourselves to walk in awareness of the infinite possibilities that surround us every day.
At the end of the funeral, everyone present had reached out to shake the hand of their neighbours, a simple human touch. Faces were solemn as we paid our final respects, but it was remarkable how many eyes smiled at each other, as each of us remembered our friend. It had been a silent celebration of a life well lived… one small thread in the story… but one which touched the heart and set an example of empathy and care that many will carry forward into our own lives. “She shone, you know. There was just something about her…” said my son. Just by being herself, our friend changed the world. So can you.