Today I was caught in a hailstorm.
Well, not by the time you read this—the storm happened on April 7.
And obviously I survived it. In fact, within two minutes of making it in through the back door, I looked out the window and saw that the pebble-sized chunks falling had turned to rain, and those on the ground were quickly dissolving.
I’ll probably remember the incident for a while, until the next time the sky decides to throw ice at me, and then that will be “the hail storm” I remember.
It’s similar with history.
People say every generation is known for something. That may be true, but what was your grandparents’ generation known for? Or their parents? Or the generation before them?
Even the greatest generations have a way of dissolving with time, leaving only a few key political or cultural figures in the contemporary memory.
The thing is, unless you manage to overthrow an entire political or social system, start a cultural movement (which everyone seems dying to do these days, so please let’s have no more), win (or start) a war, or create some physical or literary masterpiece, your chances of being remembered past your grandchildren’s generation are pretty slim. And yet we still try.
Why do we do this?
Some simply want to achieve fame, little realizing that a window of glory in their lifetime does not translate to lasting renown and notoriety. Others think they can become immortal by cementing their names in the history books. And in most cases, the underlying motivation for wanting to be remembered is quite selfish.
As someone who has long romanticized the idea of creating a work that will outlive me, I’ve given this subject some hard thought, and this is the realization I’ve come to:
Not on unreached generations, who will one day read with fascination the words we wrote or behold in awe a statue of us. But the people who see us every day, who call us every other month, who ask for our advice and give theirs in return, or even those who receive one kind gesture from us—those are the people who constitute our legacy. Oh yeah, and your children are also kind of significant too. They are the people singularly most shaped by your words, actions, and attitudes, who will inevitably bear some of your characteristics into the future.
This doesn’t mean the world will remember our name, but if we can think beyond ourselves in any capacity, we should realize that our name is not the important thing to remember. It’s what we stand for that counts.
That being said, there are brilliant novelists whose personal lives shot their story’s message in the foot– at least for those who knew them. They may have publicly championed great causes and beliefs in their books, but in some cases the only people who could appreciate the book were those who didn’t know the author. That, fellow readers and book nerds, is a tragedy.
So even if we do go on to achieve some master accomplishment that makes the history books, we should take care that our private legacy doesn’t undermine the one we’ve spent a lifetime trying to build.
But for most of us, our names will be forgotten with time. So let’s spend less of of our time building an empire, and more of it building into others.