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We Come From, And Return To, Dust



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Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem revertis.


Remember man, that dust thou art, and to dust thus shalt return.


Found this on some web site. It made me stop and think. The Latin and King James style English give its succinctness multiple allusions; for me it conjures up images of tombs and catacombs; and Medieval monks berating their flock. It isn't a topic dwelled upon much in this (modern) age; true though it remains.


And there I pause: it is true, we will all rot and be gone to dust, but also I feel that our purpose is to leave something beyond dust behind when we are no more: we have to find meaning in our moment and in the legacy of that moment.


Legacy, that's quite a word, so is purpose. I assume the quote is from the bible or some such text, but then again it is coldly secular, there is no hint of the glorious here after, or even threat of abandonment if creed or Christ are not followed; just a return to dust. That does make me wonder, maybe it’s not biblically inspired, but of another, maybe Roman, tradition. Death, a final event, a return to dust. And if, as I firmly believe, this is true, what of us and our lives?


A long time ago I sat in a shabby Cambridge lecture room and listened to a man saying we all seek recognition, though in multiple different expressions and forms; a few years ago I was given pause by a TV programme discussing status anxiety (I think its a book too, something I should one day look up); and I recently read a book about "What is Good?": it seems there are cross currents in these themes which have, and I hope will, always fascinate me.


What is our purpose? What will be our, my, legacy? I think it was Steven Wiesner (the famous physicist) who said "the more we understand about the universe, the more it seems pointless." I feel that is a strange point of view. Billions of years of happenstance, then followed by further ions of a remorseless selection by, and for, an ever changing, influencing, and influenced, nature and here we are - influencing and influenced by what is around us. On a cosmic scale, in both time and distance, everything seems irrelevant, but my little influence does sum to something; Newton and/or Leibniz have proved that infinitesimals matter.


There are my children, my family and friends; my work, attempting to productively use my time; and lets not be too narrow in what I mean, writing this has taken up a productive hour of my time. Time is often well spent with friends and booze and chat, but it is also satisfying to leave something more. A rye smile appears as I remember a now long lost friend being proud of her temping skills: she knew she could photocopy well.


Now all this seems to be leading towards another word, Service, to add to my list: Purpose, Legacy, Service - ways to give meaning and to escape our coming from, and return, to dust.


"Glad to be of service" - a phrase full of the evocations of Douglas Adams. You do get an intense feeling of satisfaction when you reach out from your self and provide good service to others. We are intensely social animals and through cooperation we improve our lot.


So, in pulverem revertis, we shall return to dist. It’s a fact, it cannot be denied, but it is very doubtful that we won't leave behind some legacy, provide some lasting service, memory, to others that will remain.


That should be humanity's goal; let us aim so that we all can contribute. I would like us all to receive recognition, status if you like, for providing a service to humanity. That should be our purpose and doing so should provide a lasting legacy.


It doesn't have to be high falutin', many a stay-at-home mum has provided far more service to humanity than a tabloid icon or a failed magnate who got the balance between creation and destruction wrong. We live in a diverse world; there are many roles to be played. The difficulty is overcoming our status anxiety and finding our place. I've not done it yet. There is still a nagging desire and dissatisfaction in my heart, but I feel I can leave some worthwhile legacy in my life.


You keep working at it. Sometimes things go wrong and the legacy is recrimination and regret, but I truly thing that over a life we create far more than we destroy or waste; and so humanity advances. We may come from dust and so return, but something more remains.


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