In reaction to what I wrote about the brave and tragic life of Isabelle Eberhardt (in my previous post) a friend who came to share a coffee in my hideout asked about my imaginary “List Of Really Fascinating Long Dead People I Would Have Loved To Meet”.
What kind of long-dead people (he asked) would qualify for my list? Those who were ahead of their time? The brilliant, creative ones? The ones who were vulnerable and depressed like me? Those who changed the course of history? The nonconformists who dared to be different? The ones who appear to have been truly kind, or attractive? The ones who had a message that still applies today?
My answer: all those who somehow left us a touching reminder, not necessarily of how great or how special they were, but of how human they were.
We can get to know them because we are capable of traveling to the past. Old books, movies, paintings, recordings, photos allow us to travel back in time and get into touch with the dead. We can see many of them, have them write or speak to us. From the distant confines of their long-lost lives, a few of them can still share helpful, inspiring, or even comforting words with us.
But that is not all.
Sometimes while wandering in the past I am really thunderstruck when I happen to see someone who is (was) more than just this person in ruffled antique clothing, with a funny hat or a crazy hairdo. More than just someone talking in strange old-fashioned phrases. Someone who in spite of a strangely outdated appearance still demonstrates a true and honest personality. A person whose footprints, left long ago on the same beaches where we walk today, suddenly remind me that I’m not the first nor the only one going here. A long-dead person who was just as alive as you and me. That recognition can strike me like a wake-up slap in my face.
These are the people who may have struggled to shape their lives in totally different times, and in ways very different from our own, but who might just as well have lived today. Whether in the end they were successful or a failure doesn’t really matter. They still seem so understandable and so human, I would like to invite them tomorrow for a drink. For a long, interesting conversation or perhaps a heated discussion. It’s a pity that Death will not allow us that kind of time travel.
I do occasionally highlight some of them here. Maybe you remember my post about Robert Burton, an Oxford scholar who lived 400 years ago. Struggling with his severe depressions, in 1640 he finally killed himself. He did however leave something behind for us all – a very impressing track of footprints indeed. For he wrote the first complete book ever about depression and how to try coping with it. Today, that book is a difficult read because of Ye Olde English language and the many classical quotes. But if we do our best, we can still sense how this man was doggedly trying to save himself. It is not just what he wrote, but his moving effort that makes him human like us.
Frankly, I must confess to a bit of self-aggrandizement here. I am very much aware that in, say the year 2100, I will be a long-dead person too. But secretly, I do hope a few of my footprints will not be entirely blown away from the sands of time. A slim chance of course, but maybe in 2112 a loony lonely searcher will re-discover my long-forgotten Messerschmitt suicide novel, or my academic works about parents and children. Maybe he will (in a dusty Internet archive with antique monitor thingies) chance upon this weird, primitive, old-fashioned blog. “A blog? You mean all typed in, in characters?” “Yes that’s what they used to do back then, you know, they didn’t even have Mind-Frumples yet.”
Maybe one or two people out there in the future will happen to hear my distant voice and realize that once, long ago, I tried hard to be just as human as them.
Isn’t that what we all secretly want? Not to be forgotten entirely, not to be wiped out forever completely?
At difficult times, maybe a tiny little whiff of such high aspirations can help us to keep going. The brief span of our life is a one-time opportunity to try and leave something for others. It doesn’t need to be something great or wonderful or polished: simply a little piece of you. If only a letter, a song, a poem, a drawing, a memory, a few words from your heart. Something personal that – even when you are no longer around – may leave an impression showing who you were and where you went. A footprint.
• tip: – an ambitious tip, I admit –
When you feel very depressed, when you feel you have lived your whole messy and troubled life for nothing, when death is perhaps already haunting your thoughts, do ask yourself what you would like to leave behind. If not for faraway future generations, then for whoever comes next. For your friends or your children.
Don’t waste that opportunity. Trying to leave them one small footprint can help you realize that perhaps your life has not been completely worthless. So this could not only be of value to others: it also might help yourself.