We will all die one day, but our names can live on and so too the memory of who we were and what we did with our time in this world.
In this way a form of immortality is possible, and it can be achieved in one of two ways: through one’s family, or through the history books.
LEGACY THROUGH HISTORY
“In this ever-changing world where mountains crumble, rivers change their courses, roads are deserted, rocks are buried, and old trees yield to young shoots, it is nothing short of a miracle that this monument alone has survived the battering of a thousand years to be the living memory of the ancients.”Matsuo Bashō, Narrow Road to the Deep North
Bashō – a revered Japanese poet, synonymous with haiku – wrote these words in 1689 at the ruins of Taga Castle. Even for someone of such refined sensibility and appreciation of the natural world and its impermanence, he was awed by the longevity of a monument honouring human accomplishment.
Stretching back through ancient history, powerful people have had monuments erected to commemorate their achievements and, in most cases, preserve tales of conquest and rule.
Over time the significance of such legacies fade, with warring factions of the past giving way to nations competing on a global scale. Perhaps even the contemporary era of conflicting superpowers may come to be viewed as tribal skirmishes by a future global community or space-faring species.
Whilst war is a negative sum game, science and the arts elevate humanity and, particularly since the Renaissance, have contributed increasingly to the pantheon of human legacy.
The great thinkers, whose ideas have echoed through history and transcended the ages, have captured the essence of humanity and the world around us in a manner that may never be tarnished by the passing of millennia. They have perhaps created the most noble form of legacy, alongside those that have fought for human rights, or to end discrimination.
Aside from benevolence, another defining feature of a legacy is its longevity – which doesn’t necessarily correlate with whether or not it is honourable or beneficial.
Only a small number of artists still have their work appreciated hundreds or thousands of years later. Business and professional sport are both too modern a phenomenon to discern how its leaders and legends will be regarded centuries into the future. Scientists, statesmen, conquerors and warriors make up most of the numbers in the history books – but their ideas and actions do not always age well.
Regardless of whether a legacy will last, many feel drawn to its pursuit. However, attempting to write one’s name into the chronicles of history does not come easily – and may be mutually exclusive to the alternative route to immortality.
LEGACY THROUGH FAMILY
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”Pericles
You are the result of an unbroken chain stretching back billions of years, and a seemingly impossible sequence of chance events and extraordinary coincidences. The passing of the baton down through the generations is perhaps the only thing that we can be sure has meaning.
Forging a new link to this chain is the single most significant imprint we can leave on this life. Beyond simply bestowing genetic code, nurturing a new generation can have ripples that reverberate deep into the future. Investing your efforts here can create a profound legacy.
Furthermore, this becomes immortality in its most tangible form; it is something we all participate in by remembering close ones that are no longer with us.
The most evocative example of this is Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead): at the beginning of November each year, Mexico and other Latin American countries celebrate the lives of departed friends and relatives, creating an ofrenda filled with photographs and memorabilia.
Anecdotes will be shared and toasts raised with the departed’s favourite tipple. Those being remembered and honoured in these celebrations will often span many generations.
Whether the departed’s soul pays a visit to the ofrenda, as is believed, actively maintaining the memory of someone keeps that person’s spirit alive – and with this being done by their nearest and dearest it not only represents the most intimate and immediate form of legacy, but (other than what may be promised by sci-fi or religion) it is also the surest form of immortality.
Is it possible to pursue both paths simultaneously?
The familiar portrait of the lonely, troubled genius would suggest not. Exceptional brilliance can only emerge from long periods of solitude, intense thought and absolute dedication to one’s craft.
Leadership too is a lonely place, not necessarily in terms of physical isolation, but great leaders also need solitude to form their own ideas and act with conviction; whilst they will seek input and opinion, when the difficult decisions come around they must ultimately look inwards for the answer.
“He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
Another familiar tale from present day leaders and their families is of the great sacrifice involved in such a level of service to a country, company or cause.
That person’s family will most likely be supportive and proud of their achievements, but this is very different to creating a legacy through family – will it elicit the same kind of love that fosters the careful custody of a person’s memory and values down through the generations?
Providing for one’s family is an oft-used motive for a dedication to work; of course providing physical security, food and shelter is important – but there must be an upper limit, or at least diminishing returns beyond a certain point?
This motive is often masking the decision to pour time and effort into a career rather than directly into the family itself. Instead the family receives the excess wealth that can spill out from such a pursuit, and this is used to buy material comforts and pay-off the indebtedness of underlying guilt of prioritising work over family.
Perhaps the truly gifted can put their family first and devote the efforts and attention required to forge a legacy in this way, whilst finding sufficient time to create a historical legacy through their craft. But would this be depriving humanity of the full extent of their gifts?
It is likely that either of these routes to legacy and immortality would require a lifetime of dedication. And perhaps the answer to which one should be pursued comes to down to the values of each individual and what means more to them: to be remembered by anonymous millions or revered by your direct descendants.
THE SEARCH FOR MEANING
The values of any given individual do of course change across the course of their lifetime, and the greatest sense of perspective can be found at the end. Among the common regrets of those on their deathbeds are having not been sufficiently caring or present with their loved ones, having taken their families for granted, and having spent too much time working.
Despite this, many prioritise a cause, or service to their country or company, above their wellbeing and relationships. Often there is a sense of destiny, an inescapable calling that must be obliged, even at great personal sacrifice.
Why does this happen?
Pushing the boundaries and driving the progress of civilisation is a core component of the human condition. Each legacy adds another brick to humanity’s Tower of Babel, raising it ever further into the sky and inviting those that follow to build it yet higher.
Maybe it also allows us to accept the fleeting and finite nature of life and helps us to validate our existence — “I may not be here for long, but I will in some way leave my mark”.
Or perhaps being remembered by generations to come is purely driven by ego.
But how important is it to be remembered by the faceless folk of the future? And how will they regard your accomplishments from a more primitive age?
As the pace of change accelerates, it’s increasingly difficult to predict how we’d be viewed by future generations.
In a utopian world of enlightened, peaceful beings – or even in the future described by Yuval Noah Harari, inhabited by unrecognisably advanced bioengineered post-humans – actions and achievements from this age may well be viewed as trivial.
Alternatively, in a dystopian world ravaged by environmental disaster, war, or disease – would anyone care?
This leads to the (rather nihilistic) question of whether striving to create a historical legacy really matters.
IN THE DYING EMBERS
Perhaps a more constructive approach is to turn the question around and to consider whether, for those that have left lasting legacies, was this in itself the motive for their efforts and accomplishments?
It seems likely that the best leaders and the greatest minds may be the ones who do not do it for status and ‘immortality’ at all – perhaps they found alignment between their gifts and their environment and the spectacular results were a natural consequence.
They probably did not waste time fearing death or fighting a losing battle against it.
In fact, a preoccupation with death is likely what holds many of us back – and may even stop us from living life to its fullest.
The poignant patterns in the reflections of those in their final moments teach us that life is to be lived.
Failing to follow your dreams, failing to live with purpose, and a desire to have done more in the service of others are also high on the list of regrets at the time of reckoning.
So we should seek to align our passions with a purpose; to surrender ourselves to the inevitability of death and to always revere life; to see magic in the mundane, and to remember that life is to be found in the little moments.
“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”John Lennon