This issue comes out on Ash Wednesday, when Catholic priests all over the world smudge repentance ash on penitents’ foreheads and say the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

On Sunday night, I was at an event at The Pinhook celebrating the new Piedmont chapter of PEN America, an organization that champions free speech and expression. David Potori, the literature and theater director for the North Carolina Arts Council, spoke about the beauty in that ritual—the acceptance and embrace of mortality, the knowledge that a hundred or a thousand years from now, everyone we know will be gone, and everything we’ve done will be forgotten.  

Even for the nonreligious, Potori said, that sentiment offers a kind of peace, a sense of freedom that allows you to not get wrapped up in daily tremors and tumults.

I’m not Catholic, and I’m not prone to kumbaya sentiments. (During my spoken-word portion of the event—called “Literary Frivolity”—I discussed the very frivolous subject of my anxiety disorders.) I’d always taken that “from dust to dust” phrase as a nod to human insignificance before the almighty. 

But this interpretation, or my recollection of it, anyway—I’d had a couple of whiskeys, and I wasn’t taking notes—has been rattling around my head these last few days. 

I spend a lot of my day consuming news, and a lot of it is objectively terrifying: Donald Trump’s authoritarian power-grabs are unprecedented in modern American history. Coronavirus has not been contained, probably won’t be, and might tank the global economy in the process. The climate crisis is already upon us, it’s going to get worse, and much of the world is in denial. I could go on. 

I dwell on them, obsess over them, and I so often feel helpless swimming against the tide of cruelty and ignorance and injustice. 

But I don’t think the idea is that we’re not supposed to care, or that we’re not supposed to act or get involved. We are, and we should. (Which reminds me: Early voting ends on Saturday, and the primary election is on Tuesday, so get out there.) I think the point is that we should recognize our place amid the much bigger arc of history, and that we should take comfort in it and do the best we can for each other. 

We are dust, and to dust we shall return. 

Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at 

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