The legacy of a life unexamined

The pursuit of a legacy is a personal decision

I really wanted to be famous when I was a kid.

It didn’t matter what I was going to do or whether I was good at it — pop star, film star, writer… anything really. Just famous. I don’t believe in an afterlife, so like so many people I kind of want to make sure I’m making the most of my time here and try to leave something behind.

The age-old question of leaving a legacy has been debated for centuries. Socrates said ‘an unexamined life is not worth living‘ — meaning if you haven’t lived a purposeful life then you might as well have never been here. Maybe that’s true.

But why do we care so much about leaving a legacy? It all comes down to our ego. We want to be remembered because we want to feel important. We want to leave behind something that says, ‘I was here.‘ And who can blame us?

If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it really make a sound? The same goes for our lives. If we don’t leave a legacy, did we really live?

Entertainment has had a long, morbid fascination with the idea of legacy, from King Lear all the way through to Succession: tales of love and struggle, but ultimately characters backstabbing their way to the top. After all, ‘you can’t make a Tomelette without breaking some Greggs.

And now The Banshees of Inisherin (2022), has brought this age-old debate to the forefront once again. The film starts when two lifelong friends, Colm and Pádraic, become at loggerheads with each other when Colm decides they should no longer be friends.

(Warning: The Banshees of Inisherin spoilers!)

Colm is a talented fiddle player; he wants to write a song to be remembered by and is willing to do whatever it takes to leave his legacy, including being a total dick to the person who cares the most about him. He feels like he’s wasting time having pointless conversations about a life that doesn’t matter. An unexamined life. He threatens to cut his fingers off until Pádraic leaves him alone, a vicious, bizarre act sure to outlive him — even if his song writing doesn’t. Pádraic, on the other hand, just wants to enjoy life in the moment with his friend and not worry about the future.

Eventually, Colm’s ego gets the better of him and one finger by one, he kills his dreams of leaving his musical legacy — he can no longer play the instrument he loved. Focused so much on leaving any legacy at any cost (including friendship on a sparsely populated island short of potential friends), Colm’s legacy is damned to be a negative one. Sure, he’ll be remembered — but only as vindictive and spiteful, even by someone who once loved him as a brother. ‘Nice guys finish last,’ right?!

Let’s be real though, even if we want to be… most of us, like Colm and Pádraic, are not famous or important enough to have our names written in the history books. We do have markers that we were once significant though — it’s in the way we’re remembered when we’re gone. The whole concept of marking our lives with a fancy rock, spreading ashes, or even having your relatives put you in their jewellery is kind of bizarre when you think about it. I mean, who really cares about a hunk of marble with your name on it once you’re dead? But we still do it. We spend thousands on fancy gravestones and the like, and we make sure to remember those closest to us; their legacy is the impact they have on us.

In the end, The Banshees of Inisherin reminds us that the pursuit of a legacy is a personal decision. It’s up to us to decide what kind of impact we want to make on the world, and how we want to be remembered. But at the same time, we shouldn’t let that pursuit consume us.

Does it really matter if a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it? Surely what matters is that we lived our lives to the fullest, and that we made the most of the time we had. So, let’s stop worrying about leaving a legacy and start focusing on living in the present moment. And who knows? Maybe one day, someone will stumble upon our gravestone, and, for one fleeting moment as they read our name, the unexamined life becomes an examined death.

Featured image: The Banshees of Inisherin / HBO

Emily Jackson, Research Manager, 2CV

Emily Jackson is obsessed with understanding what makes people tick and uncovering the quirks of human behaviour. Her background in research and social sciences means she likes questioning everything and digging for answers. She has a breadth of knowledge and experience, working across both lifestyle and social clients, and has recently co-founded the MRS Young Person’s Sustainability Collective. Outside of work, Emily spends her time hunting down London’s (and the world’s) best coffee and veggie food

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