A few days ago a former colleague texted me from a Chicago coffeehouse to say she was sitting near an elderly, disheveled man she initially thought might be homeless. She’d studied him for a few moments before a shocking truth hit her.
He was a former Chicago alderman, once powerful and feared, the stuff of daily news, a legend in his not-so-distant time.
But no, she thought. Could this really be him?
“Is he still alive?” she asked in her text.
I Googled and confirmed that he was indeed still alive, but by the time I texted her back she had already concluded that she was right about his identity, though he probably wasn’t homeless.
A day or two later — hang on, I’ll connect these dots in a minute — I was watching “PBS NewsHour” on YouTube. When the show was over, YouTube automatically bounced to an old episode of “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah.” Noah made jokes about several previously major news events, all of which I only dimly remembered. Then he went into a riff on Kirstjen Nielsen.
“Kirstjen Nielsen?” I thought. Wow. Hadn’t thought about her in forever.
Forever — or so I deduced from again consulting Google — meant since last April, which was when she resigned as the country’s controversial secretary of homeland security. It was weird to realize how quickly she had faded from memory.
And what, you may be wondering, does she have to do with that alderman?
I’m not going to name the once-famous alderman because it doesn’t seem fair, and even if I did, his name wouldn’t mean anything to a lot of people now. And that’s the point of these two anecdotes, a point summed up by a friend who in an entirely different context said something afterward that snapped the two together in my mind.
“Everyone,” he said, “is forgotten.”
Everyone is forgotten. So is most of what happens. The daily urgencies, private and public, fade. Fame is fleeting. Power shifts. Even the mighty fall.
Kirk Douglas? He just died at the age of 103. “He’s still alive?” some older people have said. Younger ones, meanwhile, have said, “Who?”
The obituaries remind us that in his heyday Douglas was the greatest movie star alive and remains one of the greatest of all time. But his time, our time, will one day be as blurry in the collective memory as 4000 B.C. is to us.
It can be depressing and destabilizing to acknowledge the fleeting nature of, well, almost everything. It can also be exciting and motivating. Either way, the recognition is existential, in the true sense of the word.
“The fact that humans are conscious of their mortality, and must make decisions about their life is what existentialism is all about,” says Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia which, rest assured, will one day be forgotten.
We’re living in an acutely existential moment. That could be said of every era and probably has been. But in this moment we’re summoned each day, loudly and publicly, to reckon with right and wrong in our country and our world, to make decisions that we know will shape the future even if the details of those decisions vanish through time.
How tempting it can be to think: But if everything is forgotten, if each of us will be forgotten, none of it matters.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney gave us an example of why we shouldn’t think that way.
He stood on the U.S. Senate floor and gave a speech explaining why he, alone among Republican senators, would vote to convict President Donald J. Trump in the president’s impeachment trial. He spoke of faith and conscience. And of the future.
“Future generations of Americans who look at the record of this trial will note merely that I was among the senators who determined that what the president did was wrong, grievously wrong,” he said. “We are all footnotes at best in the annals of history.”
Footnotes at best. Most of us won’t even be that.
And yet we’re all given the chance, every day, to plant the seeds that will make the future a better place.
And even if that future world doesn’t have a clue who we are? What comes from those seeds is how we’ll be remembered.