For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with making a difference in the world. The bigger impact, the better.
But the question I’ve come to wrestle with is, how does one measure the impact one’s made?
Kim and I recently celebrated our 19th wedding anniversary in Savannah. It’s one of the most charming and unique cities in the United States. A highlight was walking through the Colonial Park Cemetery in the heart of the Historical District. Established in 1750, it’s the oldest intact municipal cemetery in Savannah. I just love old crypts and gravestones. A number of them were worn down by history, with some engraved letters barely visible, others already lost forever.
It struck me that normally, when we say something is “set in stone,” we consider it permanent. As these burial markers can attest…not exactly.
Our lives are fleeting, and our actions can seem even more so. In a world pre-occupied by “what have you done for me lately,” it makes sense that we’d want to erect something permanent to remind the world that we were here. One reason we engrave our names, dates, and other details into the stones that mark our final resting places is to help future generations remember us by letting it be known that we existed. That we made an impact.
And the bigger the stone, the bigger the impact we made, apparently.
As Kim and I wandered the grounds, I happened across the crypt of a soldier who died young. Freshly graduated and new to the military, he died helping people with Yellow Fever, which claimed the lives of almost 4,000 people in the town in the early 1800s. He gave his life in service of those who needed him, and passed away before having a family of his own.
His sacrifice was tremendously heroic. I can’t help but think that if he was able to save one person, or give another person hope or comfort within the shadow of the death of a loved one, it’s quite likely that there is someone alive today whose life is different, or even made possible, because of his actions.
But does the fact that his story is fading away mean that his impact is minimized? Of course not. The stories of our lives are the culmination of a thousand different storylines that converged on the day we were born. Whether or not any person living today knows of this young soldier’s actions – or even his existence – is irrelevant. His life mattered.
And when erosion finally erases him from the consciousness of history, it will still matter.
It’s great to be acknowledged for a job well done. It’s nice to get a raise, a standing ovation, or an award that recognizes our contribution. But in the end, all of those things are fleeting. The only thing that will truly stand the test of time is the chain reaction that our actions started in the first place.
Good actions yield good fruit, even if we don’t live to see it.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that because no one acknowledged the good thing you did yesterday (or will do today) that it didn’t matter.
Applause fades, trophies rust, and the words on our gravestones with eventually melt into the past. In the end, our actions, and the possibilities they bring to life, are the only things that last forever.
Even the anonymous ones.