I was reading a book years ago about the medieval concepts of the after life, and came across the idea that you won’t be released from purgatory (at ease, the middle ages were by and large Catholic, of course) till the last ripple of your actions has worked itself out in the world.
The concept is terrifying, even for normal human beings. That kid you raised well or badly raised another kid who perhaps got to be a king or a mass murderer or you know Karl Marx, and where do the ripples stop? How long till they stop working themselves through in the world.
Now imagine if you are in a position of power of any kind, be it as a bureaucrat or a ruler. That permit you refused because the paper wasn’t filled just so, the father lost his job because he couldn’t make it to work. The children– you get the point.
Or take writers. Heinlein was a great influence on me when I was young and looking for guidance, but I’m sure he wouldn’t want to claim responsibility one way or another for how I turned out.
The concept is also morally wrong, at least to an extent. No one can be responsible for how their third or fourth order actions affect others because we simply can’t see it or imagine it, much less calculate it.
Unless, of course, your action was evil to begin with, so oh, hum, don’t be evil.
BUT the concept is fascinating.
Because we tend to think of ourselves, isolated in our own sphere, or as one of you told me about his/her blog “shouting into the internet like a crazy person.” And we will look at our hit counters and go “dang.”
Or, as I used to back when, we read but don’t even comment on the blogs, and we live our little isolated lives and affect no one. And when we vanish we vanish utterly.
But it’s not true. As forensics says “every contact leaves a trace.”
I met — once — an adult who remembered me because, when he was 4 and in my son’s kindergarten class I took pity on him in the line to go in and wiped his nose and tied his shoe. (He recognized me by my accent.) To him at that time, with his family in some turmoil, this was a great act of kindness, apparently. To me it was mommy-extension duty.
There are people who will write me about my posts, and say I pulled them back from a bad place. Or people who write to me and say how my books cheered a dying relative. Or pulled them out of a really depressing place.
During the year from hell (the first, the year after Robert was born) Jerry Pournelle saved my life and my husband’s sanity, because his books were stocked by the local library, and we didn’t have money to buy any books, and his writing was our road to sanity. (Look, they also stocked Piers Anthony, but after the fifth book I just wanted to scream at the puns.)
Sometimes just your being there and smiling at someone might make that person’s day better. I know it’s happened to me once or twice, when really depressed and a stranger smiled at me or made a funny quip in the store, which was the beginning of the turn around.
Recently, my attempts at walking to lose weight — look, I was walking before, but some of us need special amounts of walking to actually get weight moving off. This last week I walked 29 miles while controlling what I eat both for low carb and quantity. I lost three pounds. — have been made more bearable by a woman about my age with whom I cross paths walking the byways of the suburb. We’ve never talked, but we smile at each other, and that’s like “Oh, thank heavens, I’m not alone.”
Yeah, you can’t know how you affect others, but you can be sure you’re affecting them.
You’re not living alone and for just yourself. Every contact leaves a trace.
When you’re done being exhilarated and terrified by that idea, calm down.
Just strive to be a decent human being: don’t hurt people, don’t take their stuff, and if you see the opportunity to be kind to someone don’t pass it up.
Yes, there will be times you are less than your best. You’re human. Not all of your contacts will be positive, but there’s a good possibility most of them will, if you try to make them so.
And your legacy will flourish long after your name is forgotten.
You can’t ask for more.