The following essay is from the NPR My Cancer weekly podcast:
What if everyone just disappeared one day? That's the theme of a fascinating new book called The World Without Us. The author, Alan Weisman, talks about what would happen if all humans just... vanished. Pick your catastrophe — disease, environmental, a religious event or space aliens, that's not the point. Weisman talks about how quickly nature would rid itself of our imprint. How quickly would our houses fall, our cities and roads? What would last the longest?
In our vanity, we have thought that the things we build, the marks we leave, will pretty much last forever. I doubt the Egyptians expected the pyramids to crumble any time soon. And our modern cities, the gleaming towers of glass and steel? No, we leave those for succeeding generations to see and remember us, for good or bad.
I've been thinking about this on a personal level. We're all going to die. We all know that. And so this applies to those suffering with cancer and those who will die in their sleep in their 90s. To those who will die instantly in an accident, and those who will lose their lives in a conflict that rages now, but in a few generations will be left to history students to study briefly and then forget.
When we're gone, how fast will we disappear? How long before time erases any trace that we were ever here? "Dust to dust" is not just a figure of speech, after all. We'll live on for a while in the memories of those we've touched. But over time, these, too, will fade along with our pictures.
I'm not talking about fame. It's of dubious value now, and certainly not worth much after we die. Who, besides a few contestants on Jeopardy, can name the builders of the pyramids? The Seven Wonders of the World have all but disappeared, to be replaced recently by a new list that just doesn't seem to fire the imagination the way the old one did. The bottom line — it really doesn't matter what anyone says after we're gone. It would be nice if everyone said good things. But we won't be here to hear them.
Doctors told me I was supposed to die 13 months ago. Then seven months ago, and then, next month. They've been wrong every time. But at some point they're going to be right. So what matters is not what we leave behind. What matters is what we do now. Do we touch the lives of others? Do we make a difference? Do we earn our place for the brief time that we are here? I think all we can hope for, all we should strive for, is a day well lived. And then another, and another. What better legacy could there be?