“Since it is not granted to us to live long, let us transmit to posterity some memorial that we have at least lived” (Pliny the Younger).
SEEN AGAINST THE BACKDROP OF THIS WORLD’S WHOLE HISTORY, A HUMAN LIFETIME IS A VERY BRIEF AFFAIR. Pliny was right: “it is not granted to us to live long.” But we can, as he suggested, leave some memorial that we have lived. We can make some contribution to the world in which we’ve been privileged to live. As we pass through the world, we can make some improvement, however slight, in the world’s condition. Surely, that should be our desire.
To be sure, not many of us will make any mark that will be remembered after we’re gone. A very wise man wrote long ago, “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after” (Book of Ecclesiastes). There is a sense in which we should forget the future and be content simply to serve our own generation. Serving our own generation, humbly and faithfully, is no small legacy to leave to future generations. In itself, that’s a wonderful contribution.
But the fact is, none of us live entirely to ourselves. Each one of us is a link in the chain of generations, and what we do is more than just our own business. We’re linked to our ancestors in the past, and we’re linked to our descendants in the future. We ought to want to be worthy links and faithful stewards of what’s been handed down. “Let us contemplate our forefathers, and posterity,” said Samuel Adams, “and resolve to maintain the rights bequeathed to us from the former, for the sake of the latter.” There ought to be in our hearts this wholesome two-fold desire: (1) to be a posterity our ancestors would be proud of, and (2) to leave a legacy our descendants will be thankful for.
Not all of us are guilty of this, but I would say that, as a people, we are in danger of losing touch with our ancestors. Nowadays, we live with such a concentration on the ever-insistent “now,” many forget the names of their great-grandparents, not to mention their more distant ancestors. If so, this is a tragic loss. We can’t disconnect from the past and still have any proper regard for what will come after us.
“People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors” (Edmund Burke).