During the recent anniversary commemorations of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that phrase was volleyed around frequently across our nation. Those of us who were alive and old enough to remember the events of that tragic day will certainly never forget where we were or what we were doing when he heard that the World Trade Center had been attacked.
While school children will learn about that day for many years to come, eventually, when everyone who lived through the actual events of that day are dead and gone, the way those lessons are taught will change. By the time 2091 rolls around, 9/11 will be just one more historical event that future generations of teenagers will resent having to learn about.
That will be the day when we’ve forgotten the events of 9/11.
Maybe it’s because I just had a milestone birthday, but lately I’ve been thinking about the legacy that I’ll leave behind after I die. Looking back on my life, I have a lot that I’m proud of. I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to impact the lives of others not only in my immediate family, but also through my work and through my writing.
But the day will eventually come when everyone who ever knew me will be gone. That’s when my memory will be forgotten.
Many of the things that we imagine as permanent are actually just as ephemeral as the electronic device that you are reading this column on. Take popular music for example. You could be forgiven if you feel like our culture will never forget the music of modern luminaries like The Beatles or Bob Dylan.
But think about how quickly the music of the past has been forgotten. How many of the great songs from the 1930s can you name? Duke Ellington was a unique genius who wrote over one thousand compositions, many of which became standards, and were recorded over and over by other artists of his day. But no one records his songs anymore because the world has moved on.
Sir Duke has been forgotten.
And if being forgotten is the destiny of the most gifted and talented among us, it is sheer folly to think that anyone will remember normal people like you and I in the year 2171.
But maybe that’s alright. Maybe the key to creating a lasting legacy is to let go of the idea that your legacy will be associated with you.
There was someone who helped my mother stay healthy when she was pregnant with me, but I don’t know their name. There were also dozens of people who helped me to learn to read and write, but I couldn’t name all of them even if I tried. Someone installed the pipes in my house and someone else makes sure the water that flows through those pipes remains clean, but I don’t know any of their names.
The Tao Te Ching, a book of ancient Chinese wisdom, says the supreme good is like water. It nourishes all things without trying to and is content with the low places that most people disdain. While water is the most soft and yielding of substances, noting can surpass its ability to dissolve the hard and the inflexible. Humble water is very powerful.
Like most of us, water also gets taken for granted much of the time but without it, life could not continue. The Tao Te Ching encourages us to think of the small as large, and to realize the key to accomplishing great things is to accomplish small things.
One day all of us will be forgotten and our names will be lost to the vagaries of time. But that does not mean we cannot create a lasting legacy. We create our legacy each and every day with every action we take and with every word that we speak. We create a powerful legacy when we act like water, nourishing those around us without the expectation that anyone will remember our names. We help people best when we give up the idea of helping, and we create the biggest impact when we forget about trying to create an impact.
As the Tao Te Ching reminds us, truth often seem paradoxical.
Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at Charles@charlesdthomas.com.
Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.