Not long ago I experienced a sporadic but profound sense of melancholy. I first thought it might have to do with having moved to a new job in a new town. But that was not it. The real problem was the dawning realization that someday I will die. Or worse: within a few years after my death only a handful of people will know or care that I was ever here. And there is nothing I can do about it.

I began to realize that much of what has occupied me has been an attempt to defeat insignificance, anonymity, and death. If I work hard enough, I can live forever, I thought. I can be among the few who cheat death of its victory by gaining a reputation that outlives them.

I now see this is unlikely. I will not become another C. S. Lewis or Augustine. Instead, I'll be a college professor. I will write a few books. But these efforts will not defeat death or oblivion. I am powerless against them. The prospect is more than frustrating: it is terrifying.

One of the great ironies of seeking immortality through work is that no accomplishment is ever enough. Immortality does not just give itself away, after all. You have to do something extraordinary to achieve it. No lecture or book or article or sermon or award or position is ever enough. There is always one more mountain to climb, one more task to accomplish, one more phone call to make—all in the effort to build a hedge against death and obscurity. It is a brutal quest, but many people keep at it so long as they think the prize may be within reach.

I have kept at it. Like many others, I have "burned the candle at both ends" to win that elusive prize. But now, with the hope of professional immortality faded, I see the futility of that quest and of the life that it produces. Nothing but frustration ...

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