“Each man had only one genuine vocation – to find the way to himself….His task was to discover his own destiny – not an arbitrary one – and to live it out wholly and resolutely within himself. Everything else was only a would-be existence, an attempt at evasion, a flight back to the ideals of the masses, conformity and fear of one’s own inwardness.”
– Hermann Hesse, from Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth
While touring countries in Europe, it’s hard not to notice that every corner of the place is filled with statues of great men and women who have become our heroes. The leaders we study in school, the avatars we aspire to become like, and the legends who continue to shape our world today. Their names even remind us of how special they were. Alexander the Great. Socrates. Mother Theresa. Martin Luther King, Jr. Saint Stanislaw.
Scattered among these individual busts of greatness sit tributes to quiet heroes — the nameless, faceless men and women who have done something significant, we’re assured, to justify the monument itself. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington DC. Auschwitz Memorial in Poland. Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts. The “En Hommage aux Six Femmes Compagnon De La Libération” monument in Paris, France.
Yet for every Socrates we recognize, there’s a Saint Stanislaw we stare blankly at; for every Unknown Soldier we conceptually understand, there’s the “Femmes Compagnon De La Libération” who, try as they might, mean nothing to us. For each monument that causes reflection, another passes by us invisibly and without consequence.
Just like mysterious Saint Stanislaw. Now this guy may be a household name in Poland, but I had never heard of him before I found myself staring at his offensively shiny, silver-plated sarcophagus.
While traveling around Poland in September with my buddy Garrett, we visited Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral. After seeing hundreds of churches, castles, and saintly statues, its magnificence numbed me to the point of aggravation. Inside, I instigated unwinnable staring contests with each set of stone-cold canonized eyes that dared to look down upon me. Though I finally conceded to each: FINE, you win. I get it. You’re a saint and I’m a mere mortal. Who’s next?!?
As we walk clockwise around the alter, I stop in front of this silver monstrosity of a memorial. St. Stansilaw, it says. God bless it. Another friggin’ saint.
Despite my indifference to this Stan guy, I read his plaque, which more or less states: “Here lies the relics of St. Stanislaw, an 11th-century bishop who was murdered by King Boleslav II’s own ego-tripping, schnitzel-eating hands. Two-hundred-some-odd years after his death, St. Stan was canonized a saint.” Sounds like every other thrilling piece of European history. Boooorr-riiiing. Onto the next guy.
But for some reason, I didn’t move. I couldn’t move. I stood frozen in front of the mausoleum, as if St. Stansilaw himself was holding my ankles, patiently, until I internalized an important lesson.
I’m not exactly sure what St. Stanislaw did to get on the King’s bad side. But here’s a man who acted as he felt compelled to act, which eventually led to his untimely and brutal death. Little was his worldly flesh & bone self aware that one day he would become a saint and be remembered throughout the remainder of written history in a most heavenly light.
Let me restate this. This guy became a SAINT — a figure people pray to and look to for guidance or support. But he died an enemy of the state, a rebel without a cause, an outcast acting against the powers-that-be and challenging the very fabric of his society. Did this guy die under the assumption that two hundred years after breathing his last breath he’d become a saint? Was this his long-term career goal and part of his life plan? Did he intend to be remembered as Saint Stanislaw of Wawel Cathedral?
I doubt it. In that moment I realized that having a long-term vision that ends when our individual life ends is a timeline far too short.
I’m not saying we all should become martyrs with the hope that one day we’ll be recognized as saints. But I am suggesting that maybe we need to expand our concept of long-term impact to a timeline much further into the future and realize that we ourselves will never fully reap the seeds we sow. Instead, perhaps we should accept that our grandchildren, great-grandchildren, strange futuristic children, and humanity as a whole will be the ones to benefit from (or become harmed by) our actions today.
These heroes we look up to, more important than the individuals they once were, are their radical ideas, their unique creations, their bold actions and sacrifices. These are the things that continue live on and impact humanity in ways they never, ever could have predicted. The alarming part is that we will never truly know our impact on humanity and the earth. Not on this present day and certainly not centuries into the future.
While still frozen in front of St. Stan, I thought about my own actions, my own journey (through Europe and through life), and the thousands of people I’d met, interacted with, or just walked past.
I like to think I’ve had a positive impact on these people. But in that moment I realized that it’s a futile task to try to manufacture this impact or even dwell on it. Our impact will be our impact. The things we create, the ideas we forge, the feelings we evoke in others — these things will all go on to spawn creations and ideas and feelings of their own. Like ripples in the water that go on and on and on and on, we’ll never fully understand how these distant ripples will shape the earth.
This both bothers and calms me. It’s bothersome because it challenges the notion of free will and consequence — the belief that we’re able to make the impact we intend to make. We aim to accomplish “great things” because we believe they’ll have great impact on the world. But knowing that I’ll never actually understand how I’ll impact the world makes me feel blind and without control.
At the same time, it’s somewhat calming. Our actions and our lives, as great as we want them to become, will impact the world in ways impossible to know. So why obsess over the final outcome? It makes the case that if we only live life as we feel compelled to live it, in a way that’s aligned with our passions and gifts, driven by intuition and guided by the heart, things will be alright. If I only listen, I’m assured, I’ll be playing my part in a much grander story. Sooner or later, I think we have to recognize that we’re all part of some bigger story, even if we can’t rationally understand how that bigger story will play out.
On that unassuming afternoon in Krakow, St. Stan convinced me that trying to predict the ways in which we’ll impact the world is a futile task — I doubt he anticipated some strange guy from the unknown New World writing about him a millenium after his death. But striving to understand who we are individually so that we may confidently play the role we’re meant to play in this grand story, St. Stan reminds us, is perhaps the most important long-term goal of all.