My father is fond of saying “graveyards are full of indispensable people.” For as long as I can remember this been one of his favorite quotes and most succinctly stated thoughts about life. When he would say this I would roll my eyes, as children tend to do when their parents are trying to teach them something important. Over time I have come to recognize the truth and brilliance behind what he was saying, along with so many other things.
The quote originally comes from French General and President Charles de Gaulle who said that “graveyards are full of indispensable men.” I prefer the more gender neutral version my father used but we of course know and recognize that de Gaulle was not being sexist but simply using the word “man” as a substitute for people.
“Graveyards are full of indispensable men.”
-Charles de Gaulle
Regardless of who said it or what gender label they used, the meaning of the message is worth understanding. This is a memento mori of sorts, a reminder that we will die, warning us not to develop an exaggerated ego and sense of self worth. We make the mistake of believing that we are the center of the universe and that every deed and action of ours is worthy of praise and admiration. We create a myth about our exceptionalism and believe that our lives are different or more meaningful than others, and that legends of our greatness shall pass on through eternity.
News flash: you aren’t special (neither am I), you won’t live forever, and nothing you do is going to matter within a few years of your passing.
If you were to walk through a graveyard you would pass hundreds of tombstones with names you have never heard or read carved upon them. Many of those people likely lived great lives and did wonderful things. Some of them probably had lofty opinions about themselves and imagined their lives worthy of some regard. With only the slightest amount of exceptions, this never happened. They lived their lives, they died, they got remembered for a short while by their close friends and family, and then faded into obscurity like the countless generations before them.
No matter how great your achievements in life, you will one day die and fade into obscurity. Marcus Aurelius once wrote: “Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both. They were absorbed alike into the life force of the world, or dissolved alike into atoms.” Alexander is part of the miniscule fraction of humans of whom we still speak and know long after their death. Despite his fame, he, like his mule driver whom none of us know, died and faded into dust. He spent his whole life fighting for fame and glory, which he achieved, but it couldn’t save him in the end. What consolation is his fame it to him, having spent his whole life in a state of wanting and anxiety only to fade into nothing like everyone else. No amount of ego, no amount of pride, and no number of accomplishments can save us from this inevitability.
Sounds a tad depressing, no? It shouldn’t be. Think about this as a liberation rather than a hopeless tragedy. We are liberated from our ego and free to be happy when we realize that what we accomplish or achieve is ultimately meaningless, and that we ourselves play no particular significance in the grand cosmos of existence. Instead of wracking yourself with worry over whether you will do anything worth remembering with your life, focus instead on being a good person. Focus your energy on being happy, on finding love, building friendships, and treating others with justice and respect. You may never do anything worth remembering but if you focus on being of strong character, you will live a life worth emulating.