What Your Dinged Up Car Can Teach You About the Universe

ding!

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.

Who Cares?

Good question.

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?

R

Photo by Patrick Woodward

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Lance August 14, 2009 at 5:08 am

David,
The story of your car pulled me in, but what really hit upon something was:
“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”
That statement is so far-reaching and powerful. And what am I doing with those seconds? What kind of mark am I leaving? David – this is so, so good to think about. And then, for me, realize again just how much impact I do have…and what kind of an impact is that…
.-= Lance´s last blog ..Tri-ing Life =-.

David August 14, 2009 at 6:33 am

HI Lance. Humbling, isn’t it? If you look around at everything that shapes your life: buildings, technologies, your possessions… almost all of them exist as consequences of someone else’s life. And not necessarily those of famous or well-known people.

Call me self-absorbed but I want to leave my marks all over the place! :)

Gwen August 14, 2009 at 8:02 am

David, I have been reading your insights and thoughts rather haphazardly all summer since I stumbed upon this page from a slew of other blogs (there is no way I can still remember the actual path that got me here). I have not, commented as yet thought, until today because this post just demands me to.

I think about this concept a lot. I don’t know if I would say I believe in pre-determinism or that our lives are set out in front of us already, but I do feel like there is some element of fate, out there, that conspires. We have bad days at work, friends invitations and random peoples odd song choices distracting us all at once so that some mark is made on our lives. It’s hard to tell just how those little events change our lives, but it’s all those little wee things pilled up on top of each other that put us in this exact place where we are RIGHT NOW. If just one of those events hadn’t happened (if the jeep had been playing Britney Spears, if your boss had been in a mood to laugh off any mistakes, if your phone had been out of batteries) you wouldn’t be where you are right this second. Maybe overall you would be pretty much the same guy, but at the very least, you wouldn’t have had a story to start off – or even inspire – this whole entry.

Maybe, as I said, fate is too strong a word to use for why the things that happen to us do, but sometimes it’s hard to discredit all these little events without having some bigger picture for them to fit into.

Anyway, I’m really sorry this got so long (what a way to be introduced to this reader, eh?) but I just had to get at least some of the thoughts you have inspired out. Thanks for the food-for-thought.

David August 14, 2009 at 8:14 am

Hi Gwen, thanks for your thoughts. I think about this a lot too, maybe too much. You’re right, if any of those details had been different, I don’t know what would have happened instead, but this article wouldn’t exist, and neither would your comment.

Find yourself with a smile... August 14, 2009 at 9:02 am

Nice post, David!

Interesting this one should come after the one about Gandhi… :-)

It’s an interesting range of expressing human emotion… Picasso with his brush, you with your pole, or any of us with whatever emotion spurs us to action in the moment. Some people may not think of a dented car as a canvas, but in a sense, they are the same.

I also enjoyed the question at the end of the article… it gets me motivated for the rest of the day.

It’s amazing what we can do with proper attitude and an acceptance of the incredible power we can express on others and ourselves…

keep smiling,

Ben
.-= Find yourself with a smile…´s last blog ..Coming Review: 11 Forgotten Laws of Attraction =-.

David August 14, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Thanks Ben. Glad to have left a dent on your day ;)

Lori August 14, 2009 at 9:22 am

Often when I read your posts they remind me of ‘stuff’ I’ve done – I suppose that’s normal. Your $5,000 tune reminded me of my $25,000 jingle. Unfortunately, my boss didn’t take my mistake as a mere jingle. I cringe thinking about it. And, I don’t mean to be a story-topper here, either ;), just an example.

Some of my best ‘scuffs and scrapes’ stories come from scars on my skin. I won’t go there, here, though. Suffice it to say that you got my noggin clanking again this morning, filling it with thoughts that would have otherwise not surfaced today.

You’re no mere drop in the bucket, David. You are a gifted writer and I enjoy your writing!
In a very real way, the world will be profoundly and permanently changed as a result of what you do while you’re here.
Brace yourself, it’s happening. You’re affecting all of us in a very positive way. Shaka that…
~Peace~
.-= Lori´s last blog ..Friday Group Hug =-.

David August 14, 2009 at 12:36 pm

You’re too kind, Lori. Friday group hug!

Scars are an awesome example. They often represent cool stories. I have one above my eye that has a story to it, maybe I’ll tell it here someday.

Rosa August 14, 2009 at 10:10 am

You just blew my mind with this post.

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.

Realizing this really makes us think about what we do and say everyday. It IS a huge responsibility, thanks for a great reminder.
.-= Rosa´s last blog ..“Keep Moving Forward” =-.

David August 14, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Rosa’s mind is blown, I can cross that one off my life list. :)

I’ve been a bit more deliberate with my actions since I finished this article. I think I must’ve dinged myself.

rgdaniel August 14, 2009 at 11:50 am

In my music-playing days, when transporting equipment to and from gigs or rehearsal spaces, or in or out of vehicles, there would inevitably be a painful moment when someone dinged something… then came the equally inevitable moment when someone else, usually NOT the owner of the dinged item, would cheerfully declare “every nick’s a memory”…

Of course all of that gear is now long gone, and the only memory of the dings I have is the above general one.

It’s in the accretion of small individual events into the larger, combined outcome, that we get the concept of “wear and tear”. Until eventually we wear out the item and replace it. Death by a thousand paper cuts. All things must pass. You can’t take it with you. Cliches for all occasions!! B-)
.-= rgdaniel´s last blog ..My Right Retina =-.

David August 14, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Every nick’s a memory, but it could still be a bad memory :)

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Kaushik August 14, 2009 at 12:42 pm

“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.”

Ask not for whom the bell tolls…Sometimes life seems like random events coming together, sometimes it seems like it must be a composed symphony to work so beautifully. Whatever it is, it is fascinating!

Thanks for a delightful way of looking at it.
Kaushik
.-= Kaushik´s last blog ..Do you feel lighter, more compassionate, more joyful, more natural, more playful? =-.

David August 14, 2009 at 12:55 pm

It really does all work beautifully, this universe-machine. Viewed as a whole, it makes perfect sense. Only when viewed as disconnected parts can things look wrong or out-of-place.

suzen August 14, 2009 at 12:58 pm

David, I love how you can spin something deep out of “ding”. Way to go! Always thought provoking, always! I may not be making physical marks on this earth, but I hope that my energy and gratitude for life has an impact. I’m trying to spread that around like peanut butter on bread.
.-= suzen´s last blog ..I Want My Mommy! The Ideal Mommy! =-.

David August 14, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Hi Suzen. In a way, all marks are physical. Thoughts manifest themselves physically too, through words and deeds.

Nadia - Happy Lotus August 14, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Hi David,

Great post and the message of it is so true. We each are important and each one of us has a purpose. We each have the power to change the world and each day our actions effect the world in one way or another.

As Lori said, each scar tells a story and I often think that each painful event that occurs leaves a dent in our heart which often heals but also serves as a reminder of a lesson learned.

Hope all is awesome! :)
.-= Nadia – Happy Lotus´s last blog ..Happy Lotus and The Big Apple =-.

David August 14, 2009 at 7:08 pm

I think you’re right, and it makes for a positive way to view painful events. Those experiences are doing important work, it just that the first part of it is unpleasant.

prayerthegate August 14, 2009 at 5:27 pm

You may be overthinking the dent thing. Have an awesome, worry free weekend.
.-= prayerthegate´s last blog ..Study Guide =-.

David August 14, 2009 at 7:09 pm

I’m not advocating worry, just responsibility.

Davina August 14, 2009 at 5:29 pm

David, I love the way you write and I love the way you think. Another fantastic read. I guess in a way, we do live forever.
.-= Davina´s last blog ..If You Could, Would You? =-.

David August 14, 2009 at 7:09 pm

Thanks Davina. Have I told you how much I like your name? I do.

Brenda August 16, 2009 at 1:53 am

I love your article, but what I love even more is the fact that today I found out that I’M GOING TO BE A GRANDMOTHER! How’s that for leaving a lasting impression! Yippee! :)
.-= Brenda´s last blog ..On Abundance =-.

David August 16, 2009 at 10:02 am

Congratulations Brenda! Way to leave a mark!

Stephen - Rat Race Trap August 16, 2009 at 1:06 pm

David, I agree that we all change the world permanently by being here. I also agree that the path life takes is very contingent. I have no idea what I would be doing if anyone of a thousand things in my life would have happened differently. However, that doesn’t mean that because it took this path vs. that path that I am having a “profound” effect on the world. An effect yes, a profound one not necessarily.

This was a beautifully written article and I loved reading it like I love reading all of your articles. Your inspiring prose points out that we can make a difference in the world and maybe even a profound difference. But just because we exist and make choices does not mean that we will actually make those profound differences. Most people do not. It’s a choice and most do not seem to make that choice in my opinion.

I like your last question as a challenge to make a profound difference and not necessarily the assumption that whatever difference I make will be profound. I could just go limping through life doing not much of anything and not too many people will care that I existed nor will I have left much of myself here as a result. I hope this makes sense.
.-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..Mavis Karn’s Secret =-.

David August 17, 2009 at 6:50 am

Hi Stephen. I see where you’re coming from, but I think it is nearly impossible not to make great differences in the course of some of the lives around you. So much of what we do is contingent on timing, and there is no way to gauge the ultimate effect of an action by looking at its initial effect. An uninteresting conversation I have with a stranger will still change the “when” and “how” of the next action I take, which will change the course of my day at least slightly, which will change the thoughts I have about myself, which could influence the outcome of something I do later, which of course will influence the outcome of everything else I ever do, because it took longer or turned out differently.

If you’d left a shorter and less thought-provoking comment, I would have been done responding to it ten minutes ago, and that would mean one to-do item on my list will have to wait until another day, which might represent one conversation I will never have, whose resultant effects I could never know. The dominoes never stop falling, and no living being ever stops setting off chains of them.

There is just too much of a volume of causes and effects for a human life not to have profound effects on other lives. You don’t need to invent the light bulb, be a parent, or even leave your couch to trigger profound changes to the rest of the world.

Jesse August 16, 2009 at 3:37 pm

David, I only just discovered this site maybe an hour ago. In that time your words have shown me more about life than any other person with the exception of my mother. Your signature has been made, and I am a better person for it. Thank you. I look forward to reading more.

David August 17, 2009 at 6:53 am

Wow, Jesse, I don’t know what to say. I can only hope my writing makes lives better, not worse. Thanks.

Jay Schryer August 16, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Wow, David, Just wow. Like Rosa said, you just blew my mind. Go ahead and cross “Blow Jay’s Mind” off your list, too. :)

As a kid, I read a science fiction book about time travel. This guy went into prehistoric times, and killed a mosquito by accident. When he returned to modern times, the world was in utter chaos. Since then, I have thought long and hard about the consequences of little actions, such as you describe in this article. Sometimes, it even used to paralyze me with fear, playing the “what-if” scenarios in my head. Fortunately, I’ve outgrown that tendency!

A counter-point that I have chosen to believe is that there is a “self-correcting” feature programmed into the Universe. That is to say, I believe that some things are just meant to be, and if we somehow inadvertently screw that up, the universe will move to fix itself. If that is really true, then the hero from the book wouldn’t have changed anything, another mosquito would have taken the place of the one he swatted, doing all the things the original mosquito was supposed to have done, thereby making the net effect of the killing very small.

What do you think?
.-= Jay Schryer´s last blog ..The Big Easy =-.

David August 17, 2009 at 7:00 am

Hi Jay. I have considered the “correcting mechanism” too, but I just can’t see it working that way. I can’t see how the sequence of events could ever return to precisely the same “track.” If each event has an array of antecedent causes, how could two entirely different sets of causes result in the same event? The universe’s cause-effect process, from what we’ve observed, is too delicate for that in my mind.

Mosquito killing I’m not sure about, but we all do much more than just kill mosquitoes.

Tina August 17, 2009 at 9:05 pm

As always, you gave me something to think about:)
I’m totally copying your last two paragraphs into my ‘thoughts to remember’ notebook. (I’ve learned that having this notebook is essential for when one is having a bad day…)

I can only hope that the changes I make to the lives of those around me are as positive as the changes those around me have made to my life.

Thanks for your thoughts David!

David August 17, 2009 at 9:13 pm

I can only hope that the changes I make to the lives of those around me are as positive as the changes those around me have made to my life.

Now there’s a goal we should all write in our notebooks.

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