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Is Dust in the Wind All We Are?

We leave our mark on the universe (for good or for ill) by what we say and what we do and how we treat other creatures and other people.

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One of the things I enjoy doing is reading science fiction books and watching science fiction movies. I particularly like stories involving time travel, and I also find myself drawn to post-apocalyptic scenarios.
One possible post-apocalyptic future (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: pixabay.com)
If I ever get my time machine working again, I’d love to travel back in time to visit ancient civilizations. I’d also like to journey forward in time to see what is to come. When I think of ancient cities and cultures, I wonder about all the people bustling around, buying things, selling things, creating things, playing music, dancing, falling in love, and so forth. Imagine if we could go back to see all these things with our own eyes — especially if our time machine had capabilities like Doctor Who’s TARDIS, providing bidirectional translation (both the written and spoken word) along with a perception filter so we wouldn’t look out of place in our modern garb. But then I return to reality and remember that those places are long gone. In many cases, entire civilizations have come and gone without us even knowing they existed (I base this on the fact that we keep on rediscovering them, which means that — in all likelihood — there are more out there that remain unknown to us). This is when I realize that I’ve been deluding myself. I’m never going to get my time machine working again (I’ve lost one of the wibbly-wobbly bits and you simply can’t get the spare parts where — and when — I live). As far as we mortals are concerned, the vast majority of the peoples who came before us have been lost in the sea of time. Even if someone’s name has remained with us, the details of their lives tend to be fuzzy at best. Take Ramesses II, who was one of the greatest and most powerful Egyptian pharaohs, for example. Ramesses reigned from 1279–1213 BC, which means he died a little over 3,200 years ago as I pen these words. Just to give you an idea what he was like, he told everyone he knew that they had to call him “Ramesses the Great” so that no one would get confused. Ramesses’ Greek name was Ozymandias. The reason I mention this here is that a lot of what we know about him comes from the Greek historian, Diodorus of Sicily. Around 200 BC, which was about 1000 years after Ramesses had died, Diodorus went trekking across Egypt writing a travelogue about what he saw, and one of the things he saw was a humongous statue of Ramesses. The accompanying inscription basically said “I’m a really, really big cheese. You may think your kings are pretty awesome but compared to me they didn’t even have a cheesy smell” (this isn’t a word-for-word translation, you understand). In the early 1800s, a group of English poets used to hang out with each other. On the one hand, these poets were overly competitive and they were always talking smack to each other. On the other hand, they weren’t very good at physical sports like boxing and wrestling; instead, they used to challenge each other to poetry contests. In 1817, there was news that some fragments of a huge statue of Ramesses II was on its way to England, and two of the poets decided to have a poetry writing competition regarding the occasion. The first to be published was Percy Shelly, whose poem went like this:
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert… near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed; And on the pedestal these words appear: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.
I can imagine myself as a small, insignificant figure, standing at the base of the ginormous stone legs with building-sized fragments of the statue scattered all around me reading the inscription, “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,” and then gazing around and beholding what had become of Ozymandias and his ambitions. Now, Shelley’s poem looked only to the past. By comparison, his friend, Horace Smith, started in the past, but then moved on to consider the future. Horace’s offering was as follows:
In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone, Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws The only shadow that the Desert knows:— “I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone, “The King of Kings; this mighty City shows “The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,— Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose The site of this forgotten Babylon. We wonder, and some Hunter may express Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace, He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess What powerful but unrecorded race Once dwelt in that annihilated place.
This really makes me think. As far as the people of the future will be concerned, we will be their ancient past. They won’t know anything about who we were and what we did. Of course, this leads me to think about the song, Dust in the Wind, which was written in 1977 by the American progressive rock band, Kansas.
All we are is dust in the wind (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: unknown)
I’ve often wondered as to the inspiration for this song and the origin of the “All we are is dust in the wind” meme. At first, I thought the book of Ecclesiastes might be the source, because — let’s be frank — this is a bit of a downer, but it seems this is not the case. Ecclesiastes 3:20 does say, “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return” (New International Version). Similarly, Genesis 3:19 says, “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (King James Version). Although profound, however, neither of these verses hit things on the nose. The famous opening lines of the Japanese war epic The Tale of the Heike — whose central theme is the Buddhist law of impermanence — include the phrase “…the mighty fall at last, and they are as dust before the wind.” According to the Wikipedia, however, the inspiration for the Kansas song, which was written by band member Kerry Livgren, came from a book of Native American poetry, which included the line “…for all we are is dust in the wind.” Dust in the Wind is a beautiful song with a haunting melody, but the idea that we are all going to fade away explains why it’s typically not a first pick for weddings and other family occasions. When things are going pear-shaped, I often comfort myself by saying, “In 100 years, no one will care about this.” It’s certainly true that it won’t be long before no one will remember our names (do you know the names of your ancestors and relatives from 100 years ago?). To paraphrase a line from my favorite soliloquy, Tears in Rain: “All these moments will be lost, in time, like tears in rain” (as recited by replicant Roy Batty portrayed by Rutger Hauer in the 1982 movie Blade Runner, which was, in turn, inspired by the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick).
Another possible post-apocalyptic future (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: pixabay.com)
So, is all that we do meaningless? At the end of the day, is dust in the wind all we are? Well, a somewhat simplistic view of things is that without the ancient peoples of the past, we wouldn’t be here today, and without us, the people of the future would never come into being. But I like to think that there’s more to life than one generation simply begetting another. When you drop a pebble into a pool of water, the ripples spread out. Similarly, whatever we do affects other people, and these ripples spread out through time and space. If you greet a stranger with a big smile and a cheery hello as you pass them by, for example, the chances are you will make them a little bit happier, and it’s been scientifically proven that they will be a bit nicer to the people they meet, and so it goes. So, as far as I’m concerned, what we do does matter, and — even if no one remembers our names — we leave our mark on the universe (for good or for ill) by what we say and what we do and how we treat other creatures and other people. Based on this, it behooves us to treat everyone with kindness and respect (even the French). What say you? Do you find this column depressing or empowering? Either way, it would be great if you would care to share your thoughts on my meandering musings in the comments below.

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Aubrey Kagan

It is thought that Rameses II was the pharaoh at the time of the biblical Exodus. If we are to believe the bible (and why wouldn’t we?) he met a watery end and would have been turned to fish food rather than metaphorical dust.

Shirley Rice

Ginny Dye has written a series of books (16 so far, and promising more) that she calls The Bregdan Chronicles. She says Bregdan is the Irish word for braid, and it signifies how our lives are intertwined. She has come up with the Bregdan Principle, which states that every person who lives affects history in some way – or something like that. These books are set in the 19th century and follow a family who live on a plantation on the James River just southeast of Richmond., and their friends. The first one, “Storm Clouds Gathering,” covers the year before the Civil War begins, and each additional book covers a year. At first, I thought the first book was just a light romance, but I’ve grown to know and love the characters.

Chewy

I really enjoyed this one – It is neither depressing or empowering to me but an affirmation of reality. What we do does little to change the big picture (Creator- with Peter O’Toole) which is both good and bad considering the imperfections that we all have. I have been delving into my families past and it is interesting how different sides view the same event. Some of my ancestors were killed in what we call the “Schenectady Massacre” or how the French Canadians refer to it as “Putting down a Rebellion”. It is all in your point of view. There were members of the family that were both praised and kicked out of the family wills because they decided to join the Colonial Army instead of sticking with the British. Again it is all in our point of view of any situation. Please continue with columns like this for even if they do not depress or inspire they make us think which is good or bad depending on the perspective.

Duane Benson

This makes me think of the question: “are we alone in the universe?”

If we are alone, does that make us the most important thing in existence – the seed of the ultimate purpose of the universe? Or does it make us the least important thing – a mere nit, boil or a cancer that matters not?

Duane Benson

I’ve always wondered (again wondering about polar opposite perspectives) if the evolution of life as we know it on Earth is incredibly unlikely as postulated in his book, or if it’s simply the natural course dictated by the physics of this universe.

If, from your perspective, you are not aware of the workings of time or gravity, rocks at the bottom of a steep hill can seem highly improbable.

On the other hand, if you can see and understand gravity, the long process of erosion, and the slope of the hill, it seems pretty inevitable that rocks will end up at the bottom of the hill.

Mike Anderson

I don’t perceive this as either good not bad. Just a statement of your belief that what we do matters. I tend to agree. As a robotics mentor, I’ve seen many students that found themselves in my care go on to be very successful in their respective fields. So, I have empirical evidence the what we do matters — at least to someone.. I’m not sure what else we could expect?

If each of us can make the world at least a slightly better place than it was when we found it, I’d say we have led a successful life. Will we ever begin to do away with strife, greed, exploitation, etc.? I fear these are part and parcel of the human condition. You cannot completely eliminate “evil” because it’s what we judge “good” by, And, I feel, there are people who inherently mean to do harm, or at least don’t care, as a means of lifting themselves up. Whether it’s for self-aggrandizement, profit, celebrity, notoriety, or because they genuinely like to hurt their fellow man, these people will never go away and no amount of prayer or fervent wishing will make it so.

And, then there are the sociopaths that just don’t care. And, I believe that some of these people are “high functioning” to the point that we can suspect them of being a sociopath, but we can’t prove it. Some of them even make it into politics. 😉 There is no “Minority Report” mechanism that allows for us to see the commission of crimes yet to happen. But, even that mechanism was based on probability and there was always a chance that it wouldn’t happen. In addition, it’s certainly possible that we could choose to take a better path if that’s what we wanted for ourselves.

So, are we just dust in the wind? I think not. I’ve seen too much evidence to the contrary. But, please let me know if you ever find the “wobbly bits” needed to repair your time machine. There are some questions I’d like to have answered. 🙂

Patrick Mannion

I think we all get that everything we do affects everyone else, and it ripples through time. The problems only start popping up in proportion to the degree to which we worry about how our actions are helping ourselves, instead of someone else.
PS: Shelley’s version always made me stop and wonder about the man, about transience, the value of “greatness”, and what’s truly valuable. Christmas (in my world) is a wonderful time to both express and hold fast to what’s important.

Jacob

One interesting thing to consider, is that in relativity and most of modern physics time is considered to be a physical dimensional. So while time inevitably always moves forward for us, presumably people aren’t lost to time per say, but stuck in a moment in time.

Duane Benson

I’m not convinced that time, as most of see it, exists as a thing. It’s not that time doesn’t exist, but that time and sequence are completely different things. Time may very well be reversible, but sequence is not. Most of what we perceive is sequence rather than time.

Kholdoun TORKI

We are less than the dust which we know. But we are much much more than that.
Imagine each atom that constitutes us and the universe, when seen at our scale is like an apple (nucleus) surrounded by grains of rice (electrons) rotating around at 6-10km, with “nothing” in between. If you calculate the matter ratio, it’s in the range of 10^-16.
So what’s the “nothing” in between and between atoms ? It’s information.
We all are information. The universe is information.
Matter doesn’t matter !

Kholdoun TORKI

I really enjoyed your article. Poetry and art can sometimes answer our existential questions, where science is powerless.
“Theory of Everything” in my point of view is far ahead of us. I’m afraid we will not see it this century, nor probably in this millennium, if Human being still exist by then.
Best Wishes for the New Year 2020 !

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