In life, there really are no destinations. The moment you reach one place, you think fondly of where have you just been or where you’d rather be. The same is true of all our accomplishments. Each success never seems final, but just another prelude before a more perfect victory.
Perhaps people with truly magnificent successes achieve a certain lasting satisfaction, but it never seemed that Alexander the Great or Napoleon ever felt finally at ease to rest. After the majority of his career, Napoleon continued to work by writing books and memoirs while he was in exile first in Elba and then on St. Helena island.
It is human nature to constantly be seeking new problems to solve and obstacles to overcome, but time pushes back against this innate urge.
Percy Bysshe Shelley captures this sentiment in his poem “Ozymandias.” A traveller in the poem describes ruins of an ancient monument in a far-off desert. Upon the ruins is inscribed: “My name / is Ozymandias, King of Kings; / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
What was once was the celebratory sculpture of a mighty ruler of a kingdom is now reduced to rubble by time and circumstance.
But even if our successes will be forgotten no matter how big they are, there is still something to be said for work. Perhaps it is not so much the end that makes works worthwhile, but the act of work itself. The Order of Saint Benedict’s motto, “ora et labora,” may be a good way for lay people to think about their actions. Work is to the body what prayer is to the soul.
Although works may not have a lasting impact on the world — even if we think they will like Ozymandias — hard work still benefits ourselves and others. Hard work is rarely oriented only toward the self and will almost certainly help other people as well. Helping and thinking of others, instead of only working for ourselves, will make us happier.
Whether we do things big or small, it seems all of us will continue to move from one thing to another as long as we live. Knowing that what we make may pass away after we die should not disincline us from diligent work.
It is not necessary to work to make something great enough or big enough to extend through time or space, but we should endeavor to do something of quality for the moment. Earth is well disposed to the decomposition of things. All things on earth decay or wear away.
However, each age’s fading gives the next its own opportunity to succeed and create. It would get awfully crowded with our limited space if Ozymandias and who knows who else’s kingdoms and monuments never passed away. We can enjoy things while they are with us, but perhaps we can gracefully accept this world’s lack of endurance. Though the old may pass away, we will never lack a new thing to look forward to.