Just behind the little gas tank door on my Honda, there is a silver scratch in the paint, about the size of a dime. It looks almost like an upside-down Nike swoosh. The panel is a little bit dented.
I know exactly when it happened.
It was a Friday in June 2006, I was new at my job, and I had just screwed up bigtime. I had transposed a few digits in my field notes and something ended up being constructed improperly, to the tune of about $5,000.
My boss had received a phone call, informing him of my costly blunder, while the two of us rode along in his truck back to the office. Things had been blowing up all day, and that was the last thing either of us wanted to hear. Painful silence.
Then my cell (for which he pays the bill) rang. Sheepishly, I answered, knowing it was a personal call. My friend wanted to go camping right after work. Feeling a desperate urge right then to get the hell out of town, I said yes and then quickly got rid of him. The awkward, silent ride continued.
When I got home, I hurriedly unloaded the work-related equipment from my trunk to throw in my camping stuff. I really wanted to be gone.
I had a bundle of wooden stakes under one arm and an aluminum range pole under the other, when I heard Right Said Fred playing behind me. Suddenly curious, I spun around to look for what kind of bizarre character would be blasting I’m Too Sexy from his car in 2006, and whacked my own car with the metal tip of the pole.
I cringed, then frowned. It was a red jeep cruising by, I never saw who was in it.
A Thousand Stories
There is a point to this absurd story.
That mark on my car is more than just a random ding. It is direct evidence of a colorful, unique moment in my life. It was the product of the magic combination of a dumb mistake on my part, a weird song choice by some random guy, a badly-timed phone call, and thousands of unseen factors. It’s not just ‘wear and tear.’
In fact, nothing is. ‘Wear and tear’ makes it sound like it’s some uniform ailment that eventually takes over the vehicle. But it’s much more interesting than that; every mark testifies to an actual event. For each mark, there is a corresponding scene that unfolded somewhere in the past, with a specific time, location, mood, and reason behind it.
When it comes to dents, scrapes, gouges and other damage, we know that it there was probably some kind of drama that put it there. My car is covered in little dings, and each has its own story, whether I know that story or not.
There is a dent on the roof, from an abnormally large hailstone that fell sometime during an uncomfortable, relationship-killing weekend excursion where me and my date were trapped inside by the weather for six straight hours with absolutely nothing to talk about.
There is a pencil-length scratch on my hood from the beak of a fickle crow who just couldn’t choose whether to dodge me to the left or to the right, on one scorching August afternoon when I was driving back from Niverville. He changed his mind one too many times, and now I drive the evidence around.
All Mysteries Have Explanations
Whether I know the story of a particular mark is not really significant. The ones I don’t know are even more intriguing. Who were the perpetrators? What motives, decisions, or flukes led up to it? There are hard answers — dates, times, causes, effects — out there somewhere. Just because I’ll probably never know doesn’t mean it affects the world any less.
When I visited Montreal, I toured the world-renowned Musée des Beaux-Arts. They housed an impressive collection, including Picassos and Monets.
“Look, those are His brush strokes,” I exclaimed, mesmerized. It blew my mind that each of those strokes, now the star of my present moment, was also a moment in Picasso’s life. Perhaps, as he made the stroke, he was at his easel by the window, having locked himself in his studio after a quarrel with his wife.
Or perhaps he was in his second home in Paris, enjoying the afternoon, trying not to be bothered by the thought of Nazi occupiers patrolling outside.
Whether we can decipher it or not, the paintstroke itself still carries the unique energy of that moment, seventy years later. If something else had been happening right then, how could it have turned out exactly the same? How could he bring his brush to the canvas at the same angle, finish his work at the same time, in the same mood, with the same smeared tones on his palette, with the same level of self-scrutiny he might have in a different moment? A different afternoon for Picasso would have yielded a different painting.
The lesson here is that we each possess extraordinary power to make lasting marks on the world. In fact, you’re doing it all the time.
You’d be hard pressed to find anything that isn’t completely emblazoned with evidence of past events. If you can appreciate the colorful stories you do know (like my Right Said Fred dent) then you can also appreciate the sheer weight of the thousands of stories that surround you every second of your life, even though most remain mysteries.
Scuffs and dents are just one obvious kind of mark. Every comment you make to somebody also leaves a mark. It’s unlikely, perhaps impossible, that it would have exactly zero effect on the rest of that person’s life, and so we must assume that they are, to some degree, forever changed.
We’ve left a path of lasting evidence throughout our whole lives. In fact, that’s really all our lives are: the impressions we’ve left, the moments we’ve created, the marks we’ve made. Once you’re dead and gone, the work you did is still done. The things you built still stand, or maybe lean or lie in rubble, but they won’t go away. The people who knew you still know you, and still operate under your influence, whether they know it or not.
Every second you exist, you’re scattering a broad trail of signatures on who knows what, laying causes to an untold ocean of effects that will carry on far beyond your death. The person who invented paper is certainly dead. Did his life affect yours today?
The founders of your city, of your religion, of your language, are all probably dead too, to say nothing of your great grandparents, or theirs. What if they had done something different with their time?
Each action you take creates a resounding shock wave that never entirely dissipates. Even in the grand scope of the whole planet, it matters. You matter, much more than you probably think.
You’re not a drop in the bucket, quite the opposite. In a very real way, the world will be profoundly and permanently changed as a result of what you do while you’re here. It can’t be helped.
That’s a lot of responsibility. What are you going to do with it?
Photo by Patrick Woodward