Picture a big steel box. Strewn about the box are some child’s blocks, the kind with letters on the sides. We place a rat in the box, to do as it pleases. It has enough food and water to live out a normal rat lifespan.
Then we let nature takes its course. Suspend any ethical reservations you have about putting a rat in a box like that — assume it is perfectly happy with this scenario, and even signed a release form.
The rat will live its whole life in that box, eating, exploring, poking at the blocks, maybe knocking some of them over and pushing them around. Eventually it will die of old age. Its corpse withers away or is removed by the night janitor.
Once the rat is dead and gone, we again have an empty box with blocks in it, same as at the start. It’s almost as if the rat’s life never happened — except there is one difference between the start of the experiment and the end: some of the blocks inside will now be in a different place.
The force that moved them was life itself. This new arrangement of the blocks — however random, pointless, meaningful or beautiful it ends up being — is the net effect of this rat’s life. The new landscape it left is the lasting impact it had on its world. It is evidence that says, “Ratty was here.”
If it had been a particularly complacent rat, it may not have moved the blocks at all. It may have just eaten up its food, daydreamed and lazed around until it died. Upon its death, the state of the box might have been indistinguishable from the one it was placed in. A new rat could get dropped in and never have a clue that this box contains the entire result of another rat’s life.
Your life, though probably a little more colorful and interesting, is essentially the same. Your box is the planet earth, and the blocks are the contents of the planet — physical contents such as landscapes, objects, people and animals, and abstract contents such as philosophies, fashions, trends and cultures. You’ve been unleashed to do your thing on this planet. You will live for a time and interact with this box and its contents, then you’ll be gone, leaving essentially the same scenario (a box with stuff in it.) The net result is the sum of the changes you’ve made to the contents of that box.
When you die, all of your responsibilities and plans — the day-to-day stuff that seems so real and vital now — will evaporate in a flash, and its residue will be worked out by the people and processes that survive you. Your inbox will not be empty. But anything you’ve “pushed around” during your life will remain pushed.
If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you may have noticed this phenomenon. In the weeks that follow a loved one’s death, you tend to notice evidence of that person’s life even though it is over. Notes in their handwriting remain on the bulletin board. Objects they bought and used sit in the last place they put them. Their clothes hang in the closet, duly worn.
My father died a year and a half ago, and immediately I noticed his life was everywhere. He was an accomplished handyman, and my mother’s house is still full of relics testifying to his time on earth. We relax on the deck he built. We sit and visit in rooms he painted. His weekend and summer projects continue to make our lives easier and more beautiful.
Aside from the physical blocks he pushed around during his life, I notice the intangible ones too. He was a science teacher, and taught me about the natural world whenever he could. My interest in science and life on earth is in large part actually his work, set in in motion by his words during his life. And I am only one of his thousands of students.
What are you leaving in your wake?
I had a wonderful day, thanks in no small part to hearing George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun” on the radio while I ate breakfast. I walked into town relishing the sunshine, and enjoyed every minute of today. George moved his last block in 2001.
Throughout life you will move blocks around, and once you die your last contributions have been made. Why did you move the blocks you did? Were they meaningful to you? If you lived life as a carpenter, having left hundreds or thousands of houses in your wake — did you do it just to get paid and buy a bigger TV, or does your legacy of bungalows mean something to you?
Do you spend your energy heaving around blocks that don’t matter to you? Are you just doing what you feel like you’d better do in the moment, or is there a discernible purpose behind it? Is your life a project, or is it more of an endless laundry list? Will those who follow you be thankful, resentful, or indifferent towards your life’s work? Do you care?
You may not — there is another school of thought here. Some might argue that all they want to do is make this block-moving period (maybe 70-80 years if one is lucky) as fulfilling as possible, and it doesn’t matter what they leave in their wake.
If that sounds like you, fair enough, but perhaps the block-pushing part is most fulfilling for those who care where they all end up.
Don’t forget: No matter what you’ve been up to, you’ve been doing your life’s work.
Photo by Hey Paul
This and 16 other classic Raptitude articles can be found in This Will Never Happen Again. Now available for your e-reader, mobile device, or PC. See reviews here.