“Almost everyone is obsessed with leaving a mark upon the world. Bequeathing a legacy. Outlasting death. We all want to be remembered…I want to leave a mark.”
I think Green is right. I know that when I think about my own death – about just not being here anymore – I think about the fact that in 100 years from now, probably no one will remember me. I won’t have contributed to science or the arts in a way that makes an indelible impression. Chances are fairly good that nothing is going to happen between now and the time I die that makes me famous for years to come. I am not among the Vincent VanGogh’s, Albert Einstein’s, Mother Teresa’s, or Walt Disney’s of the world.
That 2 a.m. conversation was, in those terms, fairly depressing. To ponder our mortality, I think, is a hard thing. It is the ultimate exercise in humility; a realization that as important as we think we are in this moment, time becomes the great equalizer. For those without children (like me), the shelf life of a legacy is even shorter than those with children and grandchildren. At least images of those people will live in bound albums for a few decades more.
And so I went back and read Green’s book again. I knew there was more to the original quote than I remembered and I was right.
“The marks humans leave are too often scars,” he wrote. “You…start a coup or try to become a rock star and you think, ‘They’ll remember me now,’ but (a) they don’t remember you, and (b) all you leave behind are more scars…We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths.”
But survive our deaths we will not. It comes for all of us.
And so instead of focusing on death, I began to think more fully about life. Why is this need to leave a mark so important to so many people? Here’s my theory: I think we all want to die feeling like we were relevant; knowing that we did our best; that in some way, we walked this earth with impact; that first and foremost, as Green himself suggests, we did no harm. What’s misunderstood, however, is that if we don’t somehow rise above mediocre, that our lives were not worth remembering. We forget that what we actually leave behind is an earth that continues to rotate, in a system much bigger than any of us. We are specks on a planet. And if we can leave the planet without doing it harm, perhaps that is the greatest legacy human beings are really capable of leaving. It’s really not that easy to live a life that does no harm.
And so a focus on legacy now seems like a waste of anxious energy to me. Why should I waste my time marking territory in some futile attempt to LEAVE something behind? Instead, I can choose to spend every ounce of energy I have in LIVING the life I have and living it well .. being relevant in the moment – in the here and now – to those whose lives I can affect now. Unless we can all have a George Baily experience (reference to It’s a Wonderful Life), we can never be certain about the impact our lives truly make. But my guess is that if we live life well, with a conscious effort to do no harm, we will indeed have made a mark on the world.