Every so often, I receive inquiries from High School students charged with writing about an artist of their choice. It warms my heart to know that even at that early age, some already have an appreciation for beauty and art. My own High School experiences are, for the most part, best relegated to the dusty attic of unimportant trivia. Of course, they did not seem that way at the time, but with the advantage of hindsight they are easy to place in such context. That is to say that if any High School students are reading this post – don’t worry about the stresses of this confusing episode in your life. It get better – much better.
Still, some High School memories do stand out more vividly than others. One, in particular, was a literature class in which we were required to read Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” The teacher, casually reading a note from the teacher’s edition of the book, explained that the moral of the story is that, given our mortality, nothing we do has any permanent – or, ultimately, important – consequences. All our doings and wrong-doings are eventually forgotten and erased, much like ourselves, and, therefore, should not be considered with too much gravity (hence the unbearable lightness). Even at that young age I still remember being astounded, wondering if she was fully aware of the implications of the words that just left her mouth.
I was reminded of it again recently while hiking through a deep limestone canyon in the desert. Limestone consists of the remnants of ancient marine life, accumulated, a speck at a time, over hundreds of millions of years. Trillions upon trillions of living beings, most no longer distinguishable, reduced to tiny grains in massive solid deposits, anonymous and inanimate. No one will ever know of their deeds and antics, their fears and desires, their successes and failures. No one will take note of them ever having existed as individual beings, let alone remember them as they truly were.
Among the limestone walls, faint shapes carefully pecked into the rock a mere few thousands of years ago tell of human beings passing this way millions of years after the seas had gone, mountains raised, and the land turned into a harsh and arid desert. Their identities no longer discernible, their loves and doings, their beliefs and yearnings, enterprises and downfall no longer known to anyone living today. Their faces and names never to be resurrected and their traces soon to be erased, too.
Wait long enough, and nothing matters.
It is hard, in the face of such things, to hold on to the illusion of permanence, preservation, importance or legacy. It is hard to argue with a rock. Harder still to argue with a rock that used to be a living being, that saw the rise and fall of species no longer in existence, let alone the feeble and fleeting lives of humans like ourselves. If there is any conclusion to be drawn, it is that anything that matters, matters now. That anything worth striving for is found in the moments, the days, and the years of our own lives. The rock belies the folly of fame and riches, of conflict and competition. If contentment is not found here and now, then when? If a life is not filled with beauty and wonder while it is still a life, still alive, still able to appreciate the great gift of consciousness, it will not be found later. Later is rock.
It is the most liberating notion of all. Nothing matters, except for the short blip of existence – the greatest gift any of us will ever be given. It is the reason to not be distracted from the proper tasks of life, from what beauty there is, or from the satisfaction of simple virtues, art, empathy and compassion. The rock is the great equalizer and the great liberator, the great reminder, the great setter of priorities, and the great debunker of illusions, dissonance and delusions of grandeur.