Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
By Aaron Belz
March 14, 2014
One of my uncles, recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s, lamented on the phone that his legacy would be eroded and eventually lost. His life work, all that toil, would wind up the way his mind ultimately would: less and less legible until finally blank. I tried to encourage him with the thought that God is on his throne, and that’s where we put our trust, but I knew I was one of Job’s counselors. Whether or not we have Parkinson’s, nothing prevents the onset of meaninglessness, and nothing feels worse to humans than the suspicion that we might, after all, be filed “miscellaneous.”
The same suspicion haunts a friend of mine who is working on a Ph.D. in Art History at Duke. The first time I met her was at a sunny local bistro called Geer Street Garden; she was lost in an esoteric debate with the bartender about pop music while she sipped a glass of champagne. I later told her she struck me as quite different from the crowd, and she admitted she had given some thought to her public persona. “I am the art,” she explained, with a playfulness that suits her. No one wants to blend in, really; those who study cultural transcendence know, at least in principle, the importance of having a signature style.
Last Sunday in a sermon at Christ Central Durham, visiting pastor Randy Nabors worked through I Corinthians 9, the passage in which the Apostle Paul says that he is a Jew to the Jews, a Roman to the Romans, weak to the weak, “all things to all people” that he might, by all means, win some. Nabors explained that this does not indicate a loss or compromise of identity but a transcendence into the identity of Christ. Therefore, it is not the dilution of meaning but the achievement of meaning—the perfection of meaning. “Christianity,” he said, “is not a history of martyrs and bloodshed that becomes a basis for you forming an organization and sitting on your butt. It is a fire that burns from the past into the future, through you.”
The very same day, New York writer and friend Hannah Vanbiber posted on her blog “Lent: A Season of Yes.” Where Lent is generally known as a “season of giving things up,” Vanbiber posits that it is actually intended to be a “yes to more abundance.” It is a stronger yes because it is a narrower one. This sounds to me like precisely the same argument made by Randy Nabors and Paul. In place of common, easily categorized and therefore easily dismissed personae, we cultivate the signature that is impossible to miss: “a yes to the love of God…a yes to becoming human.”
Last month Politico Magazine ran a piece titled “Barack Obama’s Paragraph: Ten leading historians assess Obama’s rank in the pantheon of American presidents.” This question is asked as each presidential term nears its end. For what do we remember Bill Clinton? George W. Bush? If Nixon is remembered for anything other than Watergate, it isn’t much—same for FDR and the New Deal; JFK gets Marilyn Monroe, the Bay of Pigs and a memorable assassination. With Martin Luther King, Jr. we associate the words, “I have a dream.” Rosa Parks had a signature act, and it is by that, and almost only that, we know her name today.
Rhetoric—poetry, in particular—faces the same challenge. In a sea of verbal noise, undulating waves of textual miscellany, how does a signal make itself heard? We measure successful speakers and poets by the same benchmark: Whose voice is remembered? During the past century, Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot have at least one work each that has become synonymous with his name (“The Road Not Taken” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”).
So my uncle’s fear is actually everyone’s fear. We don’t want to be lost or old news or discarded. It is basically human to want to be loved now and remembered later. And though for a few of us an earthly legacy is inevitable, the vast majority of us will relax into obscurity not long after we die, and all of us will pull an Ozymandias eventually. So what characterizes us? What is the signature by which we’re known? Either it’s someone else’s, or death wins. There’s really no other possibility.
- Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His third collection of poems, Glitter Bomb, is due out from Persea in June. Follow him on Twitter at @aaronbelz.
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”