A few months ago, I was listening to a podcast, a conversation between a physician author and another writer who’d just published a book about creating a meaningful, purposeful life.

This physician author is a big name these days – he’s by all traditional, professional measures wildly successful, with a whole host of accomplishments and even some fame. Yet, as he shared in this conversation, he was struggling with a deep and painful sense of meaninglessness and futility. As he put it, no matter what he did in his life, no matter how much success he had, ultimately, the planets would go on spinning just the same. His own name would be forgotten in the sands of time. This – the not being permanent or even remembered, and not being able to change reality in some major, fundamental way – troubled him.

He is not alone of course. There is a particular notion of meaning that many of us have been seduced by. In this version of significance, you live on because your name is carved into the big buildings you funded, or your story is written in history books because of the power you wielded and the enormous public influence you had. Or, perhaps you win big prizes or create a technological advance that breaks into a new frontier.

Indeed, in Silicon Valley, people actually talk about wanting to make “a dent in the universe” – as if denting this unbelievably beautiful and more-intelligent-than-us miracle would somehow be a good thing. As if it needs our denting.

As I listened to this physician share about his struggle with his individual temporariness, and his ultimate individual insignificance, I couldn’t help but reflect on what I’ve lately come to think of as “the other immortality.”

We – as named selves, with edges we define by our bodies – are indeed finite and mortal. But if we don’t identify with that smaller self, and instead identify with the slightly larger selves – seeing ourselves as nurturers and givers who shape others, who in turn shape others – then the stretch of our lives looks different. We can see the truth that we, via our love, our care, our gifts, are in fact enduring. We just don’t endure in ways that are always knowable to us, easy to chart or pin down.

When I sit on the rug and read Goodnight Moon to my daughter, some things are being poured into her from me: new words she’ll go and use in who knows what ways in her own life, future memories of the comfort and happiness of snuggling with a loved one, perhaps a love for stories. When we sit there and read, we are not just passing ten minutes. We are layering in one more experience that is shaping her.

I can’t know what she will choose to do with her words in her future – comfort people, teach something, offer kindnesses to her neighbors, write some words on a page – who knows? Nor do I know what she will choose to give or create from what will hopefully become in her a deeply felt love for human beings. But I do know she will do something, because that’s how the chain of giving and receiving and giving again works for us humans. And it’s an endless chain: she will impact someone, and whoever she impacts will in turn impact others.

And so, when I read Goodnight Moon, I’m immortal.

And everyone who has shaped my capacity to read to her, to be patient with her, to extend love to her – is in that moment immortal too.

When my childhood dance teacher would gather all of us kids in a circle before class and look at us as if we were the most miraculous creatures ever created, and ask us, with rapt attention, “What did you learn at school today?,” she forever altered how we felt about ourselves. Now we are artists and therapists and activists and aunties and neighbors and teachers. Everything we do is a little bit imbued with her and her love. And so she is immortal.

Or, let me put it this way. If you have ever seen me be patient, you have met my dad. If you have ever heard me ask a searing question, you know something of my mom. If I have ever been kind and affable in a casual sidewalk conversation with you, you know my childhood neighbor Dolores, who was that way with me every single day when I passed by her front walk.

And how many of us are carrying a little of Georgia O’Keefe, or James Baldwin, or some other sage or saint of old, because of how their words and wisdom live in our heart and keep shaping us?

Life is about this miraculous and mysterious mixing of light between humans over time, over generations.

And so, to anyone who is stuck in the cold loneliness of seeking significance in their small-self’s permanence, I want to say: small-self permanence is not actually available to us humans. Permanence of name and individual impact is not here for our taking.

But we do have immortality through love. We pour the golden light of our attention and care and gifts into others. It changes who they are. It shapes the golden light they have to give, and as they give it, some part of our own light is carried forward.

We live on, eventually anonymously.
We live on, always gloriously.
We live on in beautiful ways that, if you ask me, are more than enough.


P.S. These ideas are one piece of what we explore in my new body of work about love and relationships (all our relationships). Want to join me for some upcoming workshops about Loving Well? Join the interest list here.

Photo Credit: tenten

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