“History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors, it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, loves, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and lasting life.” — Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History
We are the sum of all that has come before us, with a mission to process and pass along this wealth of knowledge and contribution to future generations. When we talk about the Great Conversation, we rightly wonder what our own legacy might be. We must feel the urgency to contribute. We must lean into Walt Whitman’s response to this very question: That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. Walt wasn’t just writing prose, he was struggling with the same things we struggle with, with fewer notifications and cat videos. We’re simply links in the chain, anchored to the work of those who came before us.
Lately I’ve seen the momentum that comes from steadily pushing the flywheel for years. The writing is easier, conversations seem more productive and meaningful, and a deeper and richer connection to the world has led to growth and understanding. We simply begin to realize that we’ll never have it all figured out, we cannot live forever and so we’ll run out of time before we grasp everything we hoped we might, and with the startling realization that our significance in the universe isn’t all that big. Yet we may still transcend this lifetime anyway, simply by being actively engaged in our time.
When we feel the connection to the countless generative souls who made us who we are, we may feel compelled to rise to the occasion of our lifetime as well. There is magic in showing up every day and doing the work. Our verse is ours alone. Just as we thrill at discovering a magical verse from a distant voice, our own verse may one day delight a future treasure hunter. Doesn’t it deserve its moment in the sun?