does it matter how you will be remembered?

On the semi-collaboration-social network that is run by the global company I work for, a few of us try to take the time to discuss philosophy. A topic that triggered a number of synaptic storms was the question someone posted titled: “How would you like to be remembered?”

The discussion was triggered with the poem:

One hundred years from now,
It won’t matter what car I drove,
What kind of house I lived in,
How much I had in my bank account,
Nor what my clothes looked like,
But, the world may be a little better
Because I was important in the life of a child.

– Unknown

Now many would make references such as citing Mark Twain who once said, “So live that when you die, even the undertaker will be sorry” whilst Douglas MacArthur is remembered for saying, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away”. In fact a few did. I’m sure that if I threw the question at google or at the quotations database, a thousand easily referencable and enlightening quotations could be used here.

However, here’s the crunch – Does it matter?

Hero, villain, famous or infamous – it seems it can all change with a stroke of a pen and circumstance.

Imelda Marcos will probably remain remembered by her people as a tyrant whilst the rest of the western world tends to immediately recall her hundreds of pairs of shoes first. Columbus taught as the great explorer rather than focus on the fact that he was a living new world angel of death modelled tyrant. Even today we see history in the making and the re-telling of it warping the reality in all areas of the world – Ferguson, Hong Kong and North Korea.

So, once again I ask, does it matter how you will be remembered?

Are you living your life for the history books? Or for someone else’s story? Because with a couple of quick strokes, you can go from hero to villain in the telling.

So I wonder if we wouldn’t be better served asking the question of ourselves – how will I remember my life?

What I have always found interesting in asking this question to people, whether in forums or in person, is that once you strip away cultural, religious or subjective language there seems to only be a single fundamental difference in the responses and that was the focal point of the underlying philosophy. There seems to only be two divisions. There are those who uphold an external perspective – the view and judgement of an outside element, be it deity  society, friends, loved ones or writers of obituaries – and those that uphold the internal perspective – the view and judgement of their own internal elements.

Does it fundamentally matter if the end result is the same? Perhaps not. But I do find it interesting – watching those that “do” for reasons beyond themselves versus those who “do” for reasons within themselves. The motivation (i.e. why?), mind you, is what I’m discussing here – the reason, the purpose – is most often external.

That difference is something I noted with social experiments such as http://wakeupproject.com.au/ where participants are requested to perform random acts of kindness for and to others. I am amused by the amount of people who need to ensure that the kindness is recognised, if not applauded. That element of an external validation.

Common responses to these conversations may contain elements of the following:

  • I do not want to coast through life just existing
  • I do not want to waste my potential
  • I want to live a life of purpose.
  • I would like to be remembered as someone that made a difference
  • Someone that stood up for the underdog and fought for justice on all levels
  • Volunteered at not-for-profit groups to support causes,
  • Performed random acts of kindness
  • Mindful of and active in reducing the global footprint
  • Recognised when a person needed help and helped
  • Developed knowledge to increase awareness and education
  • Controlled negative emotions so as not to inflict on others
  • Practised patience, tolerance and forgiveness.
  • Community minded and compassionate.
  • I do believe one person can make a difference
  • I’d like to inspire others to be more
  • If I have made a difference to just one being then my life has been purposeful.

I often agree with the sentiments of each and every one of those points, but I always challenge them by wrapping my previous question and ask if these activities are only worth achieving if some form of recognition is provided?

I reiterate, does it fundamentally matter if the end result is the same?

There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—
God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.

— Kurt Vonnegut via God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

I wonder if that external element, which I admit to the perception that all religious “reward” systems come under, is what drives people?

If that external reward system was all gone – if it was proven that the universe is nothing but random chaos, colliding matter and an eternal Nietzschean darkness thereafter – would the simple knowledge of doing good – of being a change for the better, of improving the lives around you, beyond you or your community – would these still be worthwhile ventures?

Now, if the answer is yes, well, then I return to the question: Does it matter if no one is aware of your part and thus no one remembers it?

For better or for worse, the reality is that most of our societal, cultural and theistic structures are based around external validation and judgement.

One might argue that the process of the self examination, of questioning and the aim of overcoming is the driving force of an authentic existence. Thus, self-overcoming is, by nature if not by definition, an internal standard that most people set themselves along the path to improvement.

The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people.
But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind.
It needs people who live well in their places.
It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane.
And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.

— David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World

So, be honest and ask yourself what what would the response be if you had to chose only one of the two following scenarios for your life?

  1. To have lived a life making significant positive differences to the world and in the lives of people, but nobody remembered; or
  2. To have lived your life without an aim to do so, but were mistakenly credited as having done so?

Are you happy with that response?

Regardless of your beliefs, assume you have one life, make it one you are proud of. Remember no one lies on their deathbed wishing they had finished one more ten hour shift! Do you know what they do regret? They regret that they did not have the courage to live a life true to themselves, to express their feelings and to have let themselves be happier. So, do yourself a favour – lie down, imagine it’s your deathbed, and start reciting the story of your life … What is your story? What are the highlights? Who are you reciting it to? Now, work back from there … what do you need to make your life meet that story half way and continue from there?

(src)

What are you going to do about it?

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