Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.
—John Newton, “Amazing Grace”
Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
I was recently on a mission in northern New Mexico and in between necessary tasks I traveled to the wilderness around Abiquiu. This was the place, near Ghost Ranch, that Georgia O’Keefe chose to live and paint. At seven thousand feet, the daytime sun is relentless, but at night the air is cool and the stars are close.
The sense of being in the sky is remarkable in contrast to the more habituated experience of standing on the ground with the sky “up there.” It arouses the realization that we are, in fact, always in the sky—our planet and solar system swirling with all the celestial bodies through the galaxy and universe. With the stars so bright, and the Milky Way an almost opaque cloud of light, the earth feels not separate, but a part of some great organism.
Standing there in the high desert, I forgot, for a moment, both my insignificance and the desire to be significant. My personal concerns melted into the backdrop of that eternal skyscape. And I was reminded of an organization out in California called the Long Now Foundation.
Long Now is a think tank that studies how issues affecting humanity and the planet will play out over ten thousand years. Remarkable projects and talks come out of this organization, which is directed by Stuart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog and the first NASA photograph of Earth from space (which image he thought would raise the consciousness of everyone on the planet; alas...). Long Now aside, it is interesting to consider ourselves and our actions from the standpoint of a ten-thousand-year impact.
This consideration is not without precedent. Back when the flow of life and events seemed to unfold at a slower pace, people considered larger time cycles. The Common Era is a blip in the almanac created by the ancient Mayans, whose calendar moved in 26-thousand-year cycles (one coming to an end in 2012 as our solar system eclipses the galactic core); or the Hindu ages of 400,000 to 1.7 million years.
It is a fascinating exercise to consider our place in such long spans, though the apparent end of this line of thought is that an individual human life is like the insignificant flash of a firefly in the long night of time. Such a sense of nullity and insignificance can lead to in two directions—selfishness and hedonism being the more common.
But what about making it a practical exercise, rather than an intellectual one? Can the activity of a moment be experienced in terms of its impact over ten thousand years? Or as the Hopi tradition teaches: “Before you take any decision, consider its effect on the next seven generations.”
History becomes moot over such a long period. In other words, specific names and achievements are lost, the record of individual lives erased. Only the results, and the results of the results, and the generations of events spawned by particular acts will remain. In this context the future anonymous unfolding of events which proceed one from another are the only legacy we can expect.
George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher of the last century, aphorized the attitude thusly: “Use the present to repair the past and prepare the future.” In this formulation all the emphasis is on the fulcrum of present moment, and indeed there is no other time in which to effect reparation or preparation. In this context actions carry a responsibility to the future, and hopefully one that is not too heavy to bear.
Knowing that what I do, and the choices I make matter to unknown parties in the future, adds gravitas to the moment. And knowing that any trace of my individuality will be scrubbed from the results brings a liberation from the bonds of ego and self-picture that tarnish the noblest intentions.
Against the backdrop of the lives of stars we are called upon to serve with every deed. Remembering this, I place my coffee cup on the table with renewed care, feeling the kiss of ceramic on wood—for such an insignificant deed, performed consciously, produces reverberations. Suffice it to say that all acts taken unconsciously, without fullness of attention, are washed away like footprints on a seashore; while any act done with the whole of a human’s being leaves an indelible mark that persists.
In this moment, each of us is a funnel into which many threads of relationship are ceaselessly pouring. We can, in this moment, bind them into a rope or brocade with our attention; always bringing order to chaos, raising the level of what has been, and producing a trail of refinement as we traverse our lives to their end.
No conscious effort is lost.