One of my favorite poems deals with the subject of accomplishing much in life and then not having anything to show for it afterwards. It’s called Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the text is below:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
The skillful use of rhyme and meter is better explained here (and it is truly impressive). I’m more concerned with the message that Ozymandias, through Percy Shelley, leaves us with.
Is it possible to gain so much and have so little to show for it?
Shelley’s poem illustrates a scenario even worse than the old “gain the world but lose your soul” proverb, because regardless of what came of Ozymandias’ soul, he wasn’t even able to hold onto the world. Instead, he was left with nothing at all.
Many of us are busy building monuments just like Ozymandias. Our monuments are often made of material things—cars, houses, bank account balances. While we probably do need some money to do many of the things we like to do, it’s easy to see how a monument to money will be ultimately unfulfilling.
If not money, many of us are building monuments of power. The perfect career will bring us access to more perceived power, so we spend years training in a modern-day apprenticeship program (college) to become accredited to an exclusive guild. For example, several of my law school friends are graduating this year. One of them told me recently, “I’m more scared than ever that I’m going to join the kind of practice that I said I never would. That I’ll just to be a normal lawyer slave like everyone else in our class.”
I told her it was good she was scared. Once you stop being afraid, I said, that’s when you know you’ll end up doing exactly what you were worried about.
There are other monuments you can build–my friend Gretchen Rubin has written a user’s guide to the four most common monuments—or you may have even crafted your own. They work just fine as long as you don’t think about them too carefully, but when you do, you may feel a little flat.
How To Fight Against the Ozymandias Mentality
If you look for a way out of the trap, you’ll find it in making your life count for something greater than yourself. A few suggestions are listed below. Feel free to take them or leave them as you see fit.
- Volunteer somewhere. The location isn’t that important. If you have no idea where to get started, look here.
- Serve on the board of a local non-profit. This is also an exercise in volunteerism, but requires more responsibility. Non-profits need money and wise stewards with some basic business experience. If you can help with both of those areas, you may be a good fit for a local board.
- Set up a charitable giving trust, and make a will to ensure that your physical assets end up where you want them. That way they won’t be stuck out in the desert, waiting for a poet to come by and make fun after you’re dead.
- Check out the Death Clock. This one is admittedly a bit creepy, but there are a number of sites out there in the crazy internet world that will tell you roughly how many days, minutes, or seconds you have left to live, based on what country you live in, how overweight you are, and so on. One of them, Death-Clock.org, even has a free Myspace applet you can use to advertise your forthcoming day of death to all the other 13-year olds on Myspace. Okay, as I said, it’s bizarre. But on the other hand, any reminder that life is short is always helpful.
- Pick up the legacy project you have neglected for too long. We all have big ideas from time to time. An idea for a trip, an idea for a business venture, an idea for a book, or for something else. Think about the ones you’ve had and discarded.
One Life to Live
That’s what it all comes down to, right? Each of us has a certain amount of time on earth, and we can spend it as we choose. Each moment is precious and can not be regained.
(Thank you, by the way, for spending these moments reading my essay.)
Looking back on life towards the end, most people regret things they didn’t do much more than things they did. I worked on the outline for this project for nearly a year before I started. In the month or two before I set up the design work and started telling people about it, I really struggled with letting it come to life.
Travel has been getting more and more expensive at the same time as the U.S. dollar continues to fall around the world; there was no clear financial motive for my beginning this project; I’m not even sure what city I’ll be living in after this summer, and so on.
I had all kinds of good reasons to delay or cancel, but what pushed me over the edge of going forward was the knowledge that if I didn’t at least give this project a chance to have a life of its own, I would always regret it. So here we are, and I’m glad you’re along for the journey.
That’s my example—what’s yours? What is your neglected legacy project? What do you care deeply about that will outlast you?
Why not spend some time on that today?