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.
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.
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.
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).
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.