Here’s a question from a restless night: What that you have done will last?
Like most rattling, sophomoric questions, it doesn’t so much lead to insight as it does to a host of additional questions, trying to assess what could even qualify as an answer:
Five years? The web developers might already be uncertain.
Ten years? Most software folks will be hard-pressed to calculate the odds.
Fifty years? The parents and stonemasons among you are still potentially smug, but I’m not sure who else.
What does it mean to last?
If an object lasts after being enshrined and no longer used, does that count? A beautiful marquetry desk sits, untouched, in the V&A. It’s hundreds of years old and in excellent condition. But no one writes a letter on it. Has it lasted? A 35,000 year old cave painting is in excellent condition, but we don’t know why it’s there, who painted it, or what it means. Has it lasted?
What does it mean to ask about something “you” have “done”?
Schools and universities sometimes last. Simple corporations sometimes last. Churches sometimes last. Cities and countries sometimes last. These are systems of people, rather than objects or mechanisms; they may claim to have been founded by a single individual, but the part that lasts is collective.
And perhaps that’s obvious: anything that lasts many lifetimes must be cared for by people who did not create it.
What are you working on that you will not live to see completed?
What are you a caretaker for, that is older than you?
Who tends to the things you’ve done when you are not around?
What makes something last?
Is it the way it is made, of lasting materials and sturdy design?
Is it the way it is maintained and maintainable?
Is it who maintains it?
Is it that it serves some lasting need?
Is lasting a quality, or a process?
Is lasting even a valuable metric?
Baking a loaf of bread is still a worthwhile endeavor even though it will be gone before the week is over. I still do the dishes even though they’ll be dirty again tomorrow. Are these things good because they are small contributions to a larger, lasting system? Or is good better judged moment-to-moment, since nothing will last forever?
All of which seems a bit breathless by the light of day, I admit — il faut cultiver notre jardin — but it’s been quite a while since I wrote you a letter, and this is the sort of topic about which you might be able to set me straight.
Postscript: Some work about lasting, or (about the worth of doing what doesn’t last), in no particular order:
- As Slow as Possible, John Cage and cheekily literal performers
- Anathem, Neal Stephenson
- The Long Now Foundation
- Working, Studs Terkel (also, separately, the musical version thereof)
- The Fifth Elephant, Terry Pratchett
- The Ship of Theseus
- The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse
- A Psalm of Life, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley (or Horace Smith if you want more telling and less showing)
- That story about trees specifically planted to replace dry-rotting timber beams at a university, which is not true.