Once upon a time, Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, went to Japan. Admiring the “Kinkaku-ji,” the “Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” Adams pointed out to his guide that the building had weathered the ages surprisingly well, given its original construction in 1397. His guide responded that, in fact, the building hadn’t aged well at all, having been burnt down to the ground twice in the 20th century alone. This started a little back and forth between the two:
“So it isn’t the original building?”
“But yes, of course it is,” he insisted, rather surprised at my question.
“But it’s burnt down?”
“Of course. It is an important and historic building.”
“With completely new materials.”
“But of course. It was burnt down.”
“So how can it be the same building?”
“It is always the same building.”
Eventually, Adams conceded that “this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view” — it merely began from an assumption he hadn’t expected: “The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.”
Whether it is a skyscraper, an essay, or a symphony, when we create things, we use whatever materials we have available to get things done. Even when the materials are an important part of the process — think bathroom floors made of Italian marble — the builder rarely cares about each distinct item. As long as it’s the right kind of marble, hand it over, and here we go.
The fabric isn’t what counts. It’s the intention, the big picture, the real sacrifice of human time, effort, and energy to create something that will, hopefully, irrevocably add value to other human beings. That’s why, no matter how often the shrine of Ise is rebuilt, or how many times each plank in Theseus’ ship is replaced, we can still marvel at the end result and pay respects to the people who infused those artifacts with meaning.
Intention is indelible. Even once the Kinkaku-ji is destroyed for good, not a picture of it remains, and no one alive any longer remembers its existence, the fact that it once did exist can never be erased — nor can the will of the people who made it so, like shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, who first erected the complex, or his son, who converted it into a temple, or any of the thousands of souls who helped rebuild it again and again.
Don’t worry about the wood. Don’t lament ephemerality. Make something that matters, and, though time might, the universe will never forget.