“I want to leave a mark,” says one of the characters in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, subject of last week’s post. “But… The marks humans leave are too often scars.”
As the speaker implies, a lot of the ugliest aspects of human history come from people trying to leave their mark on the world. But can’t we all identify with this? Who doesn’t want to make a lasting difference and escape the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes, “There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.”
But maybe we do achieve a kind of permanence, after all. You could think of it as sort of a web of effect. Everything we do has multiple effects that spread out from ourselves like the strands of a spider web, or like ripples in a pond. Your actions affect other people, altering their behaviors in big and small ways that in turn affect others, and so on, spreading out through space and time. (Time travel stories make much of this. You go back in time and step on a bug and return to your own time to a world altered beyond recognition.)
Does the web of effect ever really end? No. What happens is that it soon becomes untraceable. Your strands blend into the larger web of other people’s actions and effects. So no one can trace it, and in time your particular effects will be forgotten (to the degree that they were observed in the first place), but… the effects are still there. They have still altered the course of events.
Again, it isn’t a simple chain of cause and effect. It’s more complicated than that. And the effects could be ironic: You could devote your life to developing a technology to benefit humanity, and then others turn it into a weapon of war or an instrument of oppression. You can’t predict with certainty the effects of any one action.
But as a general thing we know enough about human behavior to predict that acts of kindness, love, justice, etc., will tend to have positive effects and improve people’s lives over the long run, and acts of cruelty and injustice will have negative effects.
We all know this, but I think we tend to assume that the effects of our actions cease when we can no longer see them. We see only scattered bits of evidence — that rare instance when someone tells us how our actions have benefited them — and what’s more we have almost no idea of the secondary and tertiary effects as the pattern spreads from one person to another, diluted among the effects of the lives of countless other people.
This is something worth keeping in mind, I think, because it offers meaning and significance to our daily lives without having to make up grandiose narratives or delude ourselves about the realities of history and each person’s small role in it. What’s more, the web of effect isn’t limited to the vastly overrated “great men” of history. It’s true that some people have a larger sphere of influence than others, but if history’s taught us anything, it’s that the people with the greatest influence often do more harm than good. The greatest mark is often the ugliest scar.