“Let them not say: we did not see it. We saw.”
The story goes that when a newspaper mistakenly printed his obituary in 1888, the Swedish entrepreneur and inventor Alfred Nobel, very much alive, was so horrified to see himself remembered as the “tradesman of death” for his inventions of dynamite and ballistic that he decided to devote his remaining years to supporting the most life-affirming endeavors of the human spirit. The Nobel Prize was thus born.
Bertrand Russell recognized vanity in the fourth desire that drives all human behavior, two World Wars later.
Whatever our judgments about personal vanity may be, the awareness that it is so elemental to the human animal, so much an exoskeleton of the self, makes Alfred Nobel’s impulse touchingly relatable; that he chose to channel it in so generative a way is a testament to his character. What is highly unusual about his experience, however, is that he had a living glimpse of what none of us ordinarily do — our legacy. Each human being wishes to be remembered, regardless of whether it is something they are willing to admit. It is impossible to live in vain, and that’s the ultimate vanity of being human.
This is a very personal wish, and it’s not surprising that this is rarely considered on a collective scale of civilization, culture or species. There, a time-travel glimpse of how posterity remembers us — the totality of us who lived and died in a shared region of spacetime — can be the ultimate calibrator of our conscience and its echoes in our actions as we make (or unmake) the world we bequeath to the future.
Poetry and the ordained Buddhist are both rare examples of an ante-obituary that is relevant to our times. Jane Hirshfield (who, in my book, is due the Nobel Prize in Literature) offers in the opening poem from her superb collection Ledger (public library), one of my favorite books of 2020 — a poem she describes as a sort of prayer, a vow to the future to not be true, a poem “hoping to make itself someday incomprehensible,” read here by Krista Tippett (with a touch of Debussy) in an excerpt from their altogether fantastic On Being conversation about poetry as an instrument of conscience and contemplative aliveness:
LET THEM NOT SAY
Let them not say: we did not see it.
We were there.
Let them not say: we did not hear it.
Let them not say: they did not taste it.
We laughed, and we ate.
Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
We witnessed the events with our voices and our hands.
Let them not say: they did nothing.
It wasn’t enough.
They must speak, so let them.
A kerosene beauty.
It caught fire.
It is said that it warmed us up.
It is praised and read in its light
Complement with Jane Hirshfield herself reading “Today, Another Universe,” also from Ledger, and her long-ago masterpiece “For What Binds Us” — one of her earliest and most moving poems — then revisit her penetrating reflection on what art and poetry do for us and a lovely stop-motion animation of her spare tree-inspired ode to the meaning of optimism.
Giving = Being Loving
Since a decade and a half I’ve been writing for hundreds of hours each month, spending thousands of dollars every month. MarginalianThe magazine, which bore for fifteen years the unsettling name Brain Pickings. The site has survived despite being ad-free, and thanks to readers’ patronage it is still free. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Donations are a great way to make your life better. Every dollar counts.
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