January 5, 2014

How will you be remembered?

I was in a classroom and the teacher went around the room asking what we hope to leave behind. What will we be remembered by? What will be our legacy? We are trained and know from a young age to say we will leave behind children of our own that we will shape and mold. They will be better versions of ourselves. The wisdom that we leave them with will spread to their children. We will ensure them a happy life, and they in turn will do the same for their kids.

Another common response to the legacy question is that we will have financial success. We will be the CEO of some big company and change the way that business has ever been done. People will write books on our brilliance. We will rise through the ranks, and became a great leader never to be forgotten. Our methods in stewarding the massive corporation will bring untold profits. This will make us rich and our wealth will be passed to the next generation. The beneficiaries won't just be our children, but to starving children in Africa, to the homeless in our own country, and of course, who could forget about giving to religious causes.

These were the appropriate answers around the turn of the millennium. Now, kids are being fed something different. Though the previous ones still apply, the new proper responses are about saving the Earth which is being destroyed by large greedy corporations who care for nothing but money. They ignore the sustainability of our planet and of humanity. What matters now is recycling. What will your legacy be? The top student in the class eagerly raises his hand and answers, "I'm gonna reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere."

Another student explains that he will be President of the nation. He will make everyone equal. No one will be poor or hungry. Homelessness will be a thing of the past. No one will take advantage of another. We'll all be treated fairly and everyone will be satisfied with his lot.

These are the correct answers. I know this is the case. We are taught to aspire to be certain things and not to question these directives. Our parents, then our teachers, our bosses and spouses, they all say the same. Happiness, wealth, a clean environment, fairness for all, isn't that what life is about. 

When I was a kid, I had no answer. I thought the legacy question was ridiculous. It has been a long time since my ambivalence to the seemingly philosophical question posed to the class.

I still choose to abstain. My successes will be great, and my failures heart wrenching. What I put out into the world will come back to me. I will live until I die. That is all.


  1. The legacy question comes from the anxiety of mortality of the one who asks it. The asker fears his own mortality and insignificance, and so he seeks to achieve immortality and significance through his biological or pedagogical children. The question therefore comes from a different place than the place where it is received. It makes no sense to the recipients until they begin to fear their own mortality and insignificance. Then the question makes sense, but from a different perspective; it is no longer an abstract question answered for the sake of a parent or teacher, but becomes deeply personal; unless the child has acquired some concept of religion, in which case the question becomes less urgent, because the religion responds to the sense of mortality and insignificance. For the child who does not acquire a sense of religion, the questions still burn, and may lead to external success, and/or frustration, until they find their own answers to the questions.

  2. I don't see how religion has anything to do with the desire to leave a legacy. I see mortality as insignificant.

  3. The desire to leave a legacy and the fear of death that many people come to experience come from a sense of anxiety of our insignificance. Are we just a combination of molecules that will come apart like any other animal or plant, or do we matter in a larger sense? Religions address this anxiety by giving a belief system to their adherents that establish their importance in a larger scheme. We are created in the Divine image, little lower than the angels, eligible for salvation, will arise from the dead or be reincarnated, depending on the religion.

  4. When people are preoccupied with issues of survival, existential questions like these don't occur to them. They're much too busy looking for food to put on the table to think about their legacy. If you ask them what they live for, what makes them wake up in the morning, the answer would be their children, or their family members who are relying on them.

    It's when they're better economically or when they get older that they begin to look at their mortality. Are they just going to pass on without someone remembering them? Thus they have kids, or do a lot of good deeds, or write books, wanting to leave something behind that will tell the world that yes, they'd been there.

    The question "how would you like to be remembered?" is definitely not easy to answer, and dangerous for people who are already prone to existential depression.

  5. @Anonymous: I actually do see myself as a "combination of molecules that will come apart like any other animal" and am ok with that. My belief in myself and in developing my mind is fundamental to my identity, however I don't connect this to a higher power.

  6. @Aleah: I like your point that existential questions can be dangerous if asked without regard to who could be hurt by them. I'm currently learning about the advantages and disadvantages of "cool mind" vs. the agitated state that I grew up in. I see major advantages to both depending on the goal. Knowing when to take which state and to which extent would be useful, but we usually remain within a band on the spectrum.