Death and Legacy

I, being man (and a bit of an egoist), think about legacy a lot. Oddly enough, I think about legacy more than I think about mortality. Death is something I can deal with, but it's more difficult for me to consider being forgotten. Therefore, I think often about the friends I have and the words I type. I wonder about the impression I've made around me and the work I've yet to do to solidify my name in time. As a Christian, this is not always the best thing to do because I know even this world is only temporary, but if I am to die and there is a stretch of time before the Rapture, I want to know I have relevance in this world in the meantime.

I think of these things because I've been thinking about the nature of legacy. It's a ponderous sort of thing. The nature of it is generational for most and can transcend generation for the truly poignant. The other day, I was sitting in a friend's room, listening to music. Eventually he played some Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson, while a great guitar player for his time, is steadily growing less relevant. He is known for the fable that he sold his soul to the devil for his skill at the guitar (Christians all know our souls are not ours to sell in the first place). But how regularly do we listen to Robert Johnson? He has a legacy that he left behind, but it is certainly not as strong as he wished it to be. Also, it's more for the preposterous tale that surrounded his skill as opposed to the skill itself.

Yet, the most terrifying thing about legacy is its transitive nature. Let us say that a person has created no influential creative works. Nothing hugely important outside of family accomplishment. How long does this relevance last? Your kids know you; your grandkids know you; your great-grandkids know you. Nieces and nephews and so on and so forth know you, but you're doing alright for first person contact for hopefully three generations. After that, you're a narrative in family history. You're still doing good for yourself in stories for a while, but over time those stories are told with less frequency and less detail. As each generation past, you went from the one who gathered everyone to dinner to that family member who combed his/her hair a funny way. As time goes by, you're just a picture in the scrapbook from long ago.

Even with an accomplishment relevant to others, you'll over time be defined by that single thing. Does the average Atlantan know anything else about Manuel Maloof outside of his bar? Does the average person know anything about Stonewall Jackson outside of Confederate guy, he stood still? Even when we have an ongoing sense of legacy that can transcend generation, it may be defined by a single accomplishment to represent our entire lives.

I want to be the man poured over through time. I want people to read my work four hundred years later like we do with Shakespeare. I want a legend to surround me like Thoreau (Walden Pond was two miles away from town, people. He had dinner with the Emersons like every other week, for crying out loud.). I want my legacy to mean something more than he was here, we'll remember him, or at least until there aren't enough people around to remember him anymore.

I want this more than my desire to stave off death. I don't worry about death. I don't because I think it's the kindest act from a benevolent God. It means He's really watching us, holding the clock and saying we're through here. It's not an malicious act, it says He's paying attention. Death is traumatic for those left here, not for those taken. Frankly, they aren't feeling a thing. Who are we to discern whether we're ready for the afterlife based on the standard of this life? I may think I'm not ready or those in my family aren't ready but I don't have the frame of reference to know that. Those left behind will have to endure and find peace in who we've lost, but when our time on this earth is up, there is no combating that. It is the responsibility for us here to continue the legacy of those before. It's the responsibility for us here to make those who have departed to stretch through time, not just through us but also beyond us.

It is through legacy in which the mortal concept of Death has no power. It is a life in concept that can really find immortality if we press enough for it. It's the race I'm running and the fight I'm fighting. I don't see it as the last enemy as Paul said it was. I see it as the last moment on my clock in which I must do as must good as I can while I'm here. I don't fear death, I fear time. It doesn't have me shaking in my boots, but it keeps me pondering what I must do while I'm here. It has me thinking about when I'll find my wife and when I'll have my kids. It has me thinking about when I'll write my books. It has me thinking about my work and is it good enough to touch others until... well, until.

My family lost someone today. It has many of us shaken up, but oddly not me. I'm staving off guilt for not feeling a lot right now but because God said last night, "Norma, your time here is through. Come home." I don't feel a need to weep. So, I being man (and a bit of an egoist), think about what my life means and how it will go on. I think about how I can perpetuate the legacy of my Auntie Norma so her name can stretch through time.

And I think a lot about John Donne and his tenth Holy Sonnet
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou'art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy'or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

John Donne is remembered 500 years later, too, but mostly for his poetry.

For Norma Baker, who clearly can't take the time to read this. She's too busy chatting it up with God. I can't blame her for that, I'd be doing the exact same thing.


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