A Different Kind of Impact
Recently I dreamed about a performance artwork that involved me writing on walls of sand, which filled in and therefore erased my work in seconds. It was monochromatic, with even my beige skin blending into the walls. I don’t remember much about the words I wrote (and lost), but I do recall the feeling of utter liberation. I remember thinking, “It doesn’t matter because it’s all going away. You can’t mess this up!” Even my dream self recognized this as a metaphor for death.
Somehow, we are both irreplaceable and insignificant. We are impermanent.
Even our best, most lasting work is unlikely to carry our reputation beyond a generation or two. A few of the famous may linger for centuries, but in the big picture that isn’t very long. Unless there’s a Moses, a Jesus, a Mohammad, or a Buddha among us (please make yourself known!), our impact will fade long before the seas engulf the continents. I’ll leave how long those major leaguers get and what happens after death to your spiritual wisdom, but as far as this life goes...ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
I know, it’s sad.
Each of us is so tiny, with such a short life span. Our entire species has been a flash in geological and cosmological time. We have only the briefest window to make an impact. And yet, we keep trying.
How can we make sense of this?
Dreams of impact are beautiful, and they generate good. They motivate us to leave the world a little better than we found it. They hold us accountable, reducing harm to our neighbors and Earth, our home. They give form to the creativity and intellect that pulse through us and make us human. In all of this, impact checks and channels our egos for a higher purpose. I love that. I feel it. On a good day, I live it.
At the same time, impact can become a self-centered enterprise. We want to claim a respectable place in history. We want to be the ones to solve humanity’s problems. We crave the belonging and acceptance that we hope will follow peer recognition. We are reassured by ambition for legacies that reach farther than our human lifespans. On a bad day, I slide in this direction too.
This conflict happens differently, in different degrees, for different individuals. But whatever form it takes, the messiness is human.
This is not about judgment or perfection. Rather, my point is that the tension exists, and it indicates our humanity. It’s a lot to hold, and it takes some bravery. Because, to engage the tension honestly, we must face our eventual death. And it’s natural to hold some fear around that.
Can we trust that our lives have meaning, in spite of their brevity? Can we accept our impermanence without sliding into nihilism? I believe we can — and that the queries themselves hold the key. The extreme contrast between life and death, which invites questioning, also unlocks answers.
Death teaches us what is most precious, most deserving of our time and energy, and, yes, most impactful in life. The trick is to let it, and we can’t do that unless we look directly at it. Whatever our religions, whether we are spiritual or not, this wisdom is accessible to everyone if we are brave enough to claim it.
Facing death, including the pain of grief, strengthens us to be fully present with reality. And that connection is powerful.
Joanna Macy, Buddhist philosopher, speaks beautifully of this. “Just be present,” she says. “The main thing is that you’re showing up, that you’re here, and that you’re finding ever more capacity to love this world because it will not be healed without that. That [is] what is going to unleash our intelligence and our ingenuity and our solidarity for the healing of our world.”
Presence, which Macy calls “the biggest gift you can give,” is a benefit to ourselves, our loved ones, and the world. It liberates us from the “shoulds” that ensnare us, and it points us to the aspects of life that matter most. And that opens the door to a different kind of impact — one that is humble, yet tenacious and strong when the going gets tough.
Maybe this looks different for different people; in fact, I feel sure that it does. But, across those differences, a core wisdom persists:
Presence is courageous and generative.
With both our mortality and our potential in mind, I wish each of you, myself, and every person the courage, peace, and loving community we need in order to just be present. With all of it.