Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Legacy: A Human Desire For Immortality

Human Desire
A name is chosen above great wealth; good favor over silver and gold.
Mishlei (Proverbs) 22:1

I was speaking to a close friend, of my age and generation, who confided that he wanted his life to have meaning. That in itself is not surprising, since that desire animates most of us. But he shared something that some might not say aloud, but remains in our thoughts as individuals: he wanted to establish a legacy. That is, that his name would be remembered long after his death. As he put it, "We were talking about Albert Einstein in our day, even though he was no longer alive."

It's true that some notable persons remain in the public discourse long after their death, and in many cases, become more popular after death than in life. We can all name such persons: Moses, Jesus, Aristotle and Plato all easily come to mind. Their names have significance and meaning  thousands of years after their death. There are others in the fields of arts, science, music, politics and business who still arouse interest and debate.

What is revealing is our human desire to live on long after we die. Such speaks, at least to me, of the human desire for immortality, an immortality that  might just be encoded into our DNA. Whether or not one believes in the immutability of the soul or in the spiritual life does not stop persons from considering what happens after death, after we pass from this world. Or to put it in more poetic terms, as Shakespeare's Hamlet does,  "shuffle[d] off this mortal coil."

Death cannot be the end, and no matter how many years are granted us on this planetary plane, it never seems sufficient, enough to satisfy our desires. Some use the time well, and achieve great things; some squander it on foolish endeavors and pursuits, while most go about their business oblivious and unaware, unthinking and without curiosity as to what awaits them in the future.

But there is a future and there is an end of life, at least as it pertains to our knowledge of it here. How many years we have granted us to accomplish certain things is unknown, but we do know that it goes too fast. The human is a unique species in many respects, notwithstanding our similarities to other mammals. No other animal has an awareness, a consciousness of death as humans do, and thus explains the desire for long-term planning, including establishing a mark, a legacy in the annals of history. We speak of accomplishments, and this is often a measure of a man.

Writers can leave their mark with their words, which in the best cases outlast them centuries later. Think Shakespeare, Milton and Maimonides. In terms of a legacy, one of the best ways to leave a mark is to do something great to better the human condition through science, art or religion. That is obviously out of reach except for the select few who have that gift. Not everyone can be a Mozart, a Salk or an Einstein.

That does not mean we can't establish a legacy in a more modest, limited manner that touches our family, friends, associates and community. Such includes raising children to become hard-working, generous and moral persons, contributing to the community and betterment of society. To raise a generation of good decent individuals is often not considered noteworthy or great, since many persons do it unnoticed and unheralded.

Even so, it is a wonderful and essential legacy; a good name is established in the process.  Truly, there is a decided benefit to doing good, and to be remembered as an individual who valued good deeds above all.


  1. In GULLIVER'STRAVELS there are the Strldbrugs, who live forever but never stop aging. They remain in permanent hospice care. They are forgotten even while alive.


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