“A stone is ingrained with geological and historical memories.” —Andy Goldsworthy
Nature creates only ephemera. An icicle, a hippo’s toenail, an outcropping of granite…everything is designed not to last forever.
People seem to rail against this impermanence. We carve initials into trees and rocks, not snowdrifts. We demand lifetime guarantees on our refrigerators. We design technologies that promise FOREVER: we publish online, we use the Wayback Machine to record our websites, and we save everything on the “cloud” (an analogy for an ideal nature?). We have Sharpies and get tattoos.
But if almost anything we make can be preserved, if all our marks can be left behind, what determines the value of longevity? (If something is made but no one is around to appreciate it, is it valuable?)
Value has to do with utility—what something enables. But value is also what we attribute to something, and that value relies on trusting our own memories of those stories.
So, maybe the value of longevity is determined by the ability to serve and to create cherished memories for others. Experiences that empower, liberate, awaken confidence, spark wonder, nurture hope, bring light. To create a lasting memory is to change a brain; to change a brain is to change a life.
Nevertheless, if at any point, the value we create as designers, writers, artists, teachers, and friends is contained in memory, then—rail as we might—the work created ephemeral value, at least on a geological time scale. Something can matter for generations, but its original value shifts and evolves—it doesn’t stay the same from day one to forever.
Ephemeral is not necessarily bad; it’s simply natural. Because we are human, ephemeral by design. Our minds are constantly and uniquely changing, and eventually our brains rot (with or without the effects of TV).
And this means that every thing we do, every thing we say (and don’t say) matters a great deal—because we get this one chance right now to offer our best to each other. To serve and to be worthy of remembering.
Consider a sunset. Ephemeral, untouchable…and among the most beautiful things you can miss every single day.