Throughout Moby Dick, the narrator breaks from the story of Ahab and the white whale to discuss various whale-related topics. He concludes one such discursion into how he believes whales should be categorized (cetology) with the following remark:
But I now leave my cetological System standing thus unfinished, even as the great Cathedral of Cologne was left, with the cranes still standing upon the top of the uncompleted tower. For small erections may be finished by their first architects; grand ones, true ones, ever leave the copestone to posterity. God keep me from ever completing anything. —Ishmael, Moby Dick, ch 32
He knows the categorization he is presenting is far from complete, and he’s fine with that. If the grandest things are not built by a single person in a single lifetime but are constructed over multiple lifetimes, it’s okay—and maybe even preferable—to leave things unfinished for those who follow. I’ll admit “God keep me from ever completing anything” is a bit of an overstatement, but he raises a good point.
It’s humbling to consider all the ways we’re building upon the foundations laid by those who came before us. And it’s interesting to think about how someday others will build upon what we’ve done. And even if we may never see the completion of our work, that doesn’t mean we can’t start—or continue—something significant. We can lay the foundation; posterity will place the copestone.
Question: What are you working on that will outlive you? What foundations are you laying today that posterity will build upon tomorrow?