A friend of mine recently lost his mum to cancer. How could he sum up her life in one short eulogy? Impossible, of course.
I started researching my ancestry this year and discovered that we had relatives murdered by Nazis in death camps and ghettos. What legacies might these people have left if they’d survived? What people might they have become? My niece recently helped produce a play about the Holocaust. The theme was remembering — we must remember, but we can never fully recapture the richness of each life lost.
When we remember, we edit. We make our own meanings. Stories and objects stand in for what was once a person, full of hope and love and guilt and secrets.
My dad was an alcoholic who took his own life. I inherited a big oil painting and a bag of mostly broken watches. Nothing else. Is that his legacy, then? What was going through his head at the end? That question mark is indelible. My mum’s mum’s mum’s sister had a child who had a child called Brian. This distant cousin of mine managed the Beatles, helped them become stars, then died of an overdose aged 32. Was it an accident?
When I think about the idea of legacy, I run into mysteries at every turn
I reflect on what remains unknowable. Even when someone has 22.9 million pages indexed on Google, a Wikipedia listing, and stories of a young Brian Epstein still vivid in my 92-year-old cousin’s mind, I don’t really know the truth. All I can do is piece things together in my own way.
What if I want to paint a clearer picture for my ancestors? I could keep a journal. I could write an autobiography. I could tell my story as clearly and vividly as my creative skills allow, praying that not too much fidelity is lost as my name echoes through the generations. But none of them would know me, really. They might see pieces of themselves, or they might think me utterly uninteresting. But in the end, they can only filter what’s left through the tight pores of their own experience. They can only make sense of the story squinting through the lens of life in the year 2098 or 3100.
Thing is, most of us don’t even know ourselves. Self-knowledge isn’t a game you complete. We’re always changing, often in ways we didn’t predict. Sometimes we prefer not to look in the mirror at all. Knowing where we came from can help us feel part of something bigger. Roots and traditions can help us feel like we belong. Considering the deep future helps too; not questions like ‘how will I be remembered?‘, but ‘what decisions can I make today that people thousands of years from now might be grateful for, or inspired by?‘
Those decisions — every decision — must always happen in the present. The present, as wise people will no doubt keep reminding us as long as civilisation continues, is all we have.
To me, leaving a legacy doesn’t mean finishing some grand project, achieving fame, or setting up a trust fund
Some of those things might be nice, but should I stake my life’s meaning on them? The very word has a whiff of stately homes and slavery about it. ‘Legacy’, a word that came to mean a gift or bequest left by someone in their will in the early 15th century and grew to mean something much broader — our immaterial influence, in the realm of ideas. Here, in the present, we do many immaterial things. We bring a particular energy to our interactions. We combine and conjure concepts in consciousness. We live by abstract values. We exist at some mysterious frequency that makes us more than the sum of our cells.
I believe these are the things that most deeply reverberate through time — our ways of being in the world. The things we build might last a few generations. Our names might echo even longer. But the energy we live with — the constant spark of curiosity or the unfathomable wells of kindness or the mood of general despair — whatever that energy is will ripple through you and the people you meet, the people they meet, and far beyond. I’m probably connected to my ancestors in a million ways I don’t realise. And so are you. I could be listening to a Beatles record without ever having heard the name Brian Epstein, and the music would still have some small but unstoppable fleck of his energy in it.
Forget money and fame. What energy are you putting out today that we’ll need more of in the future? What ideas are you exploring that might be worth passing down? What would make your great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter smile?
Featured image: Laura Fuhrman / Unsplash