I was strolling through the beautiful Princes Street gardens in Edinburgh some time ago, when I came upon a churchyard, its tombstones blackened by the soot from centuries of morning and evening Scottish coal fires. Among the tombstones, a flea market was being held. Second-hand clothes hung on a line between one memorial and another; cheap jewelry lay on a card table astride a stone tablet; shoppers and gawkers picked their way down the rows, oblivious to the uncomplaining dead beneath their feet.

The experience resurrected in me the only personal fear I can readily identify: the fear of an insignificant life. This fear has nothing to do with “being somebody” in the usual sense. Nor am I referring to the tedious commonplace that “life is meaningless.”

Thoreau touched on the problem in the midnineteenth century when he explained why he decided to spend two years living alone at Walden Pond: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

But that is not quite it either. Thoreau’s interest was primarily individual and introspective. If his own life was lived judiciously, he was satisfied, apart from any effect on others. My fear is different and can be stated simply: Will it matter, once I am gone, that I was ever here?

The Rich And Famous

This question, asked in one form or another by every reflective person, is an outgrowth of the basic human need to feel that we count, that our lives have purpose, that we are not just a temporary configuration of atoms. We may not need statues erected to our memories, but we want to feel we can say at the end of our lives, “My life was worth living. Things are at least slightly better in the world because I was here.”

Our world, of course, has its cures for the fear of insignificance: prestige, fortune, and power. If you are famous, or wealthy, or powerful, how can anybody doubt that your life is significant, that it counts for something?

How, indeed, except for the greatest of all dissolving acids: time. The problem with fame and wealth and power—and everything else generated by humankind—is that they will not stay. Is not the curse of transience at the heart of the “all is vanity” cry of Ecclesiastes?

I wonder how many of the tombstones in that Edinburgh cemetery marked the graves of people of position, prestige, or accomplishment. Did they not ride the streets of Edinburgh in whatever century, on the way to important tasks, earning the money needed for this life and more, recognized by neighbors and fellow citizens? And yet who in the flea market crowd, sorting among the leftovers of contemporary lives, had even a passing thought for that departed prestige, wealth, and power?

Article continues below

Some may respond, Who cares what people know of me in the distant future, as long as I can enjoy myself while I am alive? A fair question.

But do those who have fame, wealth, and power report that those things provide | the sense of meaning we all a seek? It seems not. In fact, by g their account, prestige, wealth, and power tend to distance one from meaning by creating illusions that are difficult to overcome—the illusion, for instance, that amassing wealth or wielding power means one’s life is successful.

Ripples Through The Hereafter

If a meaningful life is not found in these ways, then how is it found? My own steps toward an answer start, not surprisingly, with God—or, more specifically, with the transcendence he embodies and ensures. Nothing is more important in contemplating the significance of one’s life than taking a transcendent, eternal perspective. All values, all aspirations, all considerations of success and failure, desirable and undesirable—all attempts to designate a meaning for life—are radically transformed when notions of transcendence and timelessness are introduced.

Such an outlook inverts our assessment of temporal accomplishments. Compare the notion of “success” in popular self-help books with that of “blessedness” in the Beatitudes. Or read the last five verses of Hebrews 11 and consider how it is that people who were stoned, sawn in two, destitute, afflicted, and ill treated are thought to have lived successful lives; how they are, in fact, people “of whom the world was not worthy.”

That which seems intelligent in this life may be foolishness from the standpoint of transcendence. That which appears inconsequential here sends ripples through the hereafter.

As a teacher, I sometimes think my students are impervious to what I say and do, and worse yet, to what we read. A young pastor told me recently how much he had appreciated a class he had taken from me as an undergraduate, then admitted he couldn’t remember which class it was. And yet, every so often I get a note from someone who tells me he or she is slightly better for something we’ve read or something I’ve said, or grateful for my understanding about a personal problem. And a few years ago I received a letter from a young woman who said that something I’d written had nudged her into the circle of faith. What more could I ask from a career than that?

Article continues below

The eternal perspective suggests that nothing human ever ends. All acts live forever in that they give shape to immortal souls. This is frightening, as well as comforting. (How many students have I thoughtlessly wounded?) But it validates the temporal, giving this life a possibility for significance that it can have in no other way.

The important point here is not the degree to which seemingly great events are made trivial, but the degree to which seemingly trivial acts are in fact eternal. What believer can hear without pain Christ’s warning that “on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Matt. 12:36)?

It is impossible to gauge the consequences of any act. The casual word of encouragement or condemnation, the letter written or not written, the little lie, the time devoted to raising a child, the friendship encouraged or neglected, the racist joke (told or laughed at), the love shown the unlovely, the hours spent in prayer, the request for forgiveness, the harboring of an offense—all these things and many more determine the character of our lives and the lives we touch, all stretching into eternity. Far from emptying human activity of significance, as the secularist might argue, the eternal perspective shifts significance from the seemingly great to the seemingly small, authenticating the nitty gritty of daily life.

As a result, we can be released from the compulsion for temporal accomplishment in the usual sense. We are given a different conception of success. Thoreau shows us convincingly that success is, in fact, failure, if it blinds us to our true nature and needs. Only in this light can we understand how a Mother Teresa, who brings God’s love to the lowest of low, is more to be envied than a Lee Iacocca; how some servant of God whom none of us knows is more successful than many a great author or entertainer whom we admire.

Mission In A Laundromat

Having an eternal perspective is not especially meaningful, however, unless it influences action. Because we cannot know the ultimate consequences of any act, prescriptions for specific courses of action are of little value.

Article continues below

Nevertheless, a central principle stands out to be translated into concrete details in as many different ways as there are people: if you wish to have significance, entangle your daily life with eternal values. Center on those things that last forever, that will reverberate through eternity.

What lasts forever? The list includes justice, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, grace—all aspects of the ultimate value, love; all find their source and perfection in God, the Eternal One. Another set of eternal values centers on truth. Love and truth have their merely human imitations, but their ultimate worth derives from being rooted in a transcendent God.

Centering one’s life on these values does not preclude all the other activities and pursuits of a normal life; it simply puts them in perspective (and makes them, necessarily, secondary). The apostle Paul made tents, Calvin practiced law, Milton wrote poetry and tracts, Pascal was a mathematician, Dorothy Sayers wrote mysteries, and Mother Hale takes care of Harlem babies. Focusing on the eternal will lead most people deeply into the world, as it should, working for justice for the powerless, bringing healing to the wounded, offering forgiveness to the guilty.

There are no limits on how this will happen. Some will find themselves at the head of organizations, others with a mission in a Laundromat or office building, or alone with a small child or an old woman. Most will find their lives somehow mixed up with people, because people last forever. Others will be drawn out of the world, however, for there is also the way of solitude and contemplation, and this, too, has its place in the eternal scheme.

It would be foolish to pretend all this is easy, or even clear. I have a principle to guide me, but I’m still periodically afraid that I’m wasting my time, that maybe there is something more important I should be doing, that I might yet arrive at the end of life and find I have not fully lived. (And wouldn’t I be dishonest to pretend that fame and wealth are not attractive?)

At such times I find help in strange places. For instance, I have come upon the following in Kierkegaard: “One lives only once. If when death comes the life is well spent, that is, spent so that it is related rightly to eternity—then God be praised eternally. If not, then it is irremediable—one only lives once.” I submit Kierkegaard’s words as a definition of a successful life, one “related rightly to eternity.” Writing over 130 years ago, he didn’t know he was going to help me. But he did, and his life, even though over, is now slightly more significant—and that’s my point.

DANIEL TAYLORDaniel Taylor is associate professor of English literature at Bethel College, St. Paul, Minnesota, and author of The Myth of Certainty (Word).

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.