Frozen Forever: How a Volcanic Eruption 2000 Years Ago Changed My Perspective On Time, Again

by John Cummings on July 27, 2010

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Where would you be if a billion tons of ash fell from the sky, in the middle of a sunny afternoon?    Would you be with your wife and kids?  Would you be doing the thing you most like to do?  Or would you instead be frozen in time, mummified forever, in a quest to finish a list of work-related tasks, maybe right at your desk, gripping your mouse or reading facebook (grit your teeth as you picture yourself in that position, forever).

As I was unpacking my bags from our trip to Europe this week, I pulled four pieces of lava rock out of my camera bag that I had picked up off of the dusty ground while visiting the ancient ruins of Pompeii near Naples, Italy.   Just days earlier, I had been standing a few feet away from our hapless friend pictured here.   This guy gives new meaning to that old saying “You can’t take it with you”.

While holding that volcanic rock in my hand, I closed my eyes and I was transported back in time — not to 70 AD, when the citizens of Pompeii were destroyed by an enormous mushroom cloud of ash, but to just last week, when my visit to the site of that ancient city reminded me of how fleeting life is and how easy it is (and how likely we are) to miss it.

I recalled standing there last week, amidst the ruins, steps from the narrow road where chariots had carried the wealthy atop marble streets, and found my own feet frozen, amazed at the power of the thought that kept going through my mind: “what was HE doing on that day, 2,000 years ago?”   Obviously, he was horrified about this life-changing, life-ending event.   Focusing on the fear he felt is a normal reaction when you see what’s been recovered of this oddly advanced town from 2 millenia ago.   But I had a lump in my throat looking at this guy in front of me in the glass case, impossibly recovered from beneath 20 feet of ash and earth.   I had a different thought.  That guy is ME!

My body is not mummified yet or trapped inside of a box that will soon be buried in the ground.  But when that day comes for me, I wonder what my body would look like.  If, at the moment of my death, I was frozen right where I stood or sat, and placed in a glass box for others to see for the next 1,000 years — what would I be doing?

The thought actually brought a big smile to my face when I let it wash over me.  Because on that day or any day during the week before or after that visit to Pompeii, a volcanic eruption would have trapped me right where I ought to be.  With my family, doing something that was meaningful and fulfilling.  For all of my life, and certainly since I married and had kids, I had dreamed of coming right here.  To Europe, to ancient Rome, to ancient Pompeii.   This was a bucket list item for me.   Here I was looking at someone who perhaps was not so lucky.

Five years ago, I would not have allowed myself this luxury of time away from work.  “Next year,” I had said, over the course of nearly a dozen “next years”.   But not anymore.   About a year ago, I put my foot down and decided that there may not be a next year to go to Israel, to learn to surf, to take my daughter to a special breakfast or my son on a fishing trip or my wife to Europe (check!).

It’s not about money, it’s about time.   I always had enough money to do most of what I want to do.  I just wouldn’t allow it because I thought it would be better if I waited until I had made more money.   And why not, I could always do [insert activity] tomorrow, next week, next month or when I had saved enough.  Sound familiar?

If you’re not doing it already, I would encourage you to start separating your time from your money.  James Taylor said it well in one of his songs as “Time may be money but your money don’t buy time.”

Here’s the punchline.   We don’t get more time, no matter how much money we make or have and we don’t get to choose when it all ends.  The people of Pompeii did have some warning, and not just “life is short” type of warning.  What I didn’t know until our talented tour guide Luca told us, is that the city of Pompeii is built on a foundation of lava rock that had hardened from a prior, incredibly destructive volcanic eruption thousands of years earlier.  They built the city on the prior ruins knowing death was always at the door.

It’s true for you and me, too.  Tomorrow may never come.  Make your bucket list right now.  And schedule one of the items on your list to take place within the next couple of weeks.  If you’re too busy, then you’re too busy and you need to do something about it.  The junk you’re filling your day with right now is not all necessary and it’s keeping you from what matters.  And you know it.

Darcy, thanks! I am not sure I would have expected it from myself in college. I’ve always been a writer but I think I may have been occupied with a few competing interests back then. :) Hope all is well with you!

Darcy says:

Way to go…not sure I would have expected this from you in college. Your writing is inspiring, I am impressed. -Darcy

Walt. Same here. Thanks for writing. :)

Walt Hampton says:

I discovered your site today by way of Facebook and have read your postings. I love your work. I love your message. Thank you!!!

Excellent advice John! I made that decision professionally about 4-years ago. Life is too short, not to do exactly what I’m called to do everyday!

I stepped out in Faith and while it cost me a few dollars and a few relationships along the way, it was well worth it.

You have the light, glad to see you are letting it shine!


Mike says:

Very cool article & perspective. Glad I took the time to read it.

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