Saturday, August 08, 2009

A Desert of Dust

I'm still alive! I managed to survive my first year of academia and I feel like the next year will be so much better. I've finally narrowed down my research topics and I'm getting a firmer grasp of my subject. It's nice to be back on familiar ground, so to speak. So, my long career or scholarship begins with a firm foundation and a happy send-off.

So, obviously, this gets me thinking about the lives we create for ourselves. You know, the empires we build together, the knowledge we create, and the lives that we touch. I ran across two quotes while in this frame of mind. Well, technically, I ran across one quote and then I opened up an old book to find the second quote. The two quotes are related and I thought of the second one immediately after reading the first. I saw the first quote while reading A Continent Of Islands by Mark Kurlansky. The book is about Caribbean history; how the people of the islands have struggled against near insurmountable odds to craft nations out of slavery, poverty, genocide, and their colonial pasts. The quote is somewhat out of place, padding the end of the introduction and starting the first chapter, but there's a universal appeal about the quote; something about it speaks to so many things.

I was thinking about was what my life will mean one day, what it means to build a nation, and what role can I play in the grand scheme of things. Here is where I found the quote:

"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 the colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

-Percy Bysshe Shelley

Those words still ring through my ears, "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!" I imagine myself in the Imperial Sand Dunes of southeast California. The dunes are huge and expansive. You can't help but feel small compared to them. Not just small, but vulnerable. You check your gas gauge, twice. The heavy sands and the heat they trap could kill you if you don't keep moving.

And here, in the middle of this wasteland, you encounter a pedestal. One stone artifact in a mountainous terrain of sand, heat, and desolation. The stone object is a warning to the mighty, to you who believe that you can create something timeless. "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!" The warning is clear: nothing remains.

This reminded me of a second quote by one of my favorite authors, H.G. Wells. In this passage, the protagonist travels into the future where the remaining people had become like animals, simple and unintelligent. He explores the area and encounters an abandoned building here. It's old, but it is obviously some sort of museum or university. The flags that line the large room catch his eyes. That's when he sees the shelves:

"The brown and charred rags that hung from the sides of it, I presently recognized as the decaying vestiges of books. They had long since dropped to pieces, and every semblance of print had left them. But here and there were warped boards and cracked metallic clasps that told the tale well enough. Had I been a literary man I might, perhaps, have moralized upon the futility of all ambition. But as it was, the thing that struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness or rotting paper testified. At the time I will confess that I thought cheifly of the Philosphical Transactions and my own seventeen papers upon physical optics."

Again, the warning is clear. So little remains from our massive efforts. Our great nations are sand and all the we know is dust. Our monuments break and our books crumble. Really, in the end, all we have are our individual life journies. My roommate once jokingly told me that he's after prestige in the scientific world. At first, that seems like a noble goal. In the end, however, that goal, like Ozymandias' great kingdom, will be like every other goal; a desert of dust. Suddenly, I'm glad that my journey is one I do out of love. We have so little time and so many steps to take in our lives. I can only pray that each of my steps takes me towards happiness and the things that truly are timeless in life.

What I study may not last forever, but it brings me true inner joy. On top of that, I think I may be able to touch a life or two in the process. Isn't that all that matters in the end?

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