A dive into why we want to leave a legacy.

Intrinsically and, whether we like it or not, we are born to die. Throughout our lifetimes there are those moments when we realise that the experiences we currently enjoy will end. There is a temporal finality, a point when we will no longer exist. A quick note, this is not a piece designed to explain what happens in the euphemistic hereafter (You can pick your own poison: pearly gates, reincarnation, or an abyssal nothing and blackness). The facet I wish to explore is the notion of legacy and our desire to last beyond our limited years.

Memento Mori Painting by Carstian Luyck

This term legacy is heard often enough. What will we leave behind? What is our destiny? How will we be remembered? Now, there are those that have left these legacies and are names that crop up now and again (dependent on your own personal experience with history and your geographical location), whatever this person is (in)famous for, be they sinner or saint, they have left an impression on history. Now, the next bit will sound morbid, those prone to existential crisis might want to skip the next paragraph(s) while the rest of us conduct a thought experiment:

Can you name your parents? Okay, how about grandparents? Right, great grandparents? (Yes, I know some of you will be smug and able to do this without checking). Okay, Great great grandparents? Now the problems start to crop up. Within three or four generations people have already been forgotten, this will go for the vast majority of people. Forgotten, maybe a name on a faded wall or piece of stone. Even if you do know the names; what do you know about the person? Not a great deal. Perhaps some key events like birth or marriage? What about what made them laugh, made them cry, their political or religious beliefs?

Grave from local cemetary

Perhaps this realisation that we will be forgotten drives us to dream of immortality through what is left behind. The paintings, the works of fiction, the temples, and palaces. A monument designed to combat the memento mori that surround us. Combatting the grinning reaper, sticking two fingers up at our allotted score. If we do want to leave a legacy, why do we remember those who were artists or were lucky enough to be born into leadership roles. Why these more than those who dragged science and understanding forward? Even Da Vinci is best remembered (at least at present) for painting a pretty pissed-off-looking woman.

If we read Ozymandias[1] we see the folly of immortality. Over the course of time beyond our understanding, we will be forgotten or the account of us morphed so much that it no longer is the person we truly were. The warning rings out from the poem ‘look upon my works ye mighty and despair’ as nothing is left of this proud ruler aside from a broken statue in the desert. From the dust we came and to it we return (or something like that).

If we read Ozymandias we see the folly of immortality

Perhaps it is this function of legacy, this need to overcome our final obstacle, that of death, that makes us fundamentally human. If we did indeed live forever, would we ever create these frenzied pieces of art?

Think of that essay you had to write (or currently have to do, if that is the case thank you for reading this far but now it is really time to get back to it.) without a deadline it would still not be complete, would it? There would be no urgency no drive.

I realise the irony in even writing this, there is something that I am sure subconsciously, I want to make sure is left permanently of me, twittering on about legacy and here it is something might digitally outlast me.

There is something that I have come to realise over the years. There is something simple that we can do in order to provide a semblance of legacy. Leave the world (at least a slightly) better place than we found it. Now is the time. After all, we do not have forever.

[1] A poem by Percy Shelley about the folly of Rameses II link to the full poem at the poetry foundation

By magpiestories

An English teacher by trade, an author at heart, it only took a global pandemic for me to start writing my first novel. Along the way, I found a love for creating shorter fiction which I share on this site along with some updates and (hopefully) useful writing tips.

I hope you have a... pleasant time reading.

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