Two Cheers for Obscurity and Oblivion: What is Wrong With a Legacy-less Life?

A friend of mine told me recently that he wants to write a book, so that he will be remembered after he is gone.

“If I believe that my name will be carried forward somehow,” he said, “that is probably the most important thing.”

Why did he care? I wondered.

“Because I just do,” he replied.

Ah, legacy!

On Being Remembered in a Hundred Years

People think that if you write a book, you will leave something permanent behind, and that people will remember you a hundred years from now.

Think of them, yesteryear’s authors of acclaim!

My friend seeks to join Ishbel Ross, for example, the first woman who worked fulltime for a daily American paper, and whose acclaimed and popular debut novel, Promenade Deck,sat on the bestseller lists for an entire year in 1932, spawning a film version that starred Zasu Pitts.

He yearns to be in the pantheon beside Joe David Brown, whose novels included Addie Pray, a bestseller turned into an Academy Award winning film starring Tatum O’Neal and a TV show that starred Jodie Foster.

How many people recognize the names Joe David Brown or Ishbel Ross today? Their books are long out of print. Promenade Deck warrants two reviews on Goodreads, one by me, one by someone to whom I recommended the book. The film version is so little remembered today, it doesn’t even appear in Rotten Tomatoes’ list of Zasu Pitts’ movies. Where can one watch it today? It may or may not be lost; no one cares. If you want to read the book, there is one copy for sale in the whole world. Some university libraries have archived copies. And this is a great book!

What about the famous movie stars of yesterday?

Remember Harrison Ford, a movie star quite popular in his heyday? He co-starred with Mary MacLaren in The Mysterious Mrs. M. He was a popular Jazz Age heartthrob who headlined around a hundred movies. No one remembers him today.

You’ve guessed that I don’t mean Harrison Ford, of Indiana Jones fame. I mean the other Harrison Ford, one of America’s first big movie stars. Our Harrison Ford originally billed himself as Harrison J. Ford to avoid confusion, but by 1970, a mere ten years after the silent star’s death, he quietly dropped the initial. No one would be confused, because no one would ever again remember the Harrison Ford who came before.

These were giants of their era; less than two generations later, they have vanished without a trace from public consciousness.

Why Do We Care About Legacy?

While many people aspire to leave a lasting legacy that will be remembered by future generations, the reality is that most of us will be forgotten in less than two generations, or even one, even by our families. What can you tell me about your great-grandfather? Maybe a little bit. What can you tell me about your great-great-grandmother? Her name? Maybe not even that.

I disabused my friend, the would-be-author, of the notion that writing a book will give him any kind of immortality. Even if you achieve some renown in the here-and-now, people will almost certainly not remember you.

How can we come to terms with this and still find meaning in our lives?

Why Do We Seek to Leave a Legacy?

There are many psychological reasons why you might seek to leave a legacy, including a desire for immortality, a need for purpose and a fear of death. Many cultural and societal influences reinforce the idea of legacy, such as the importance placed on famous historical figures, the emphasis on accomplishments and achievements, and tributes paid to those who have died. Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing,” and Shannon Adler opined, “A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” How many times have we heard this kind of thing: Whenever someone tells a joke, people will remember Jack Benny’s humor and wit. But this kind of thing is never true. I wish it were so; at the turn of the next century, people should still listen to Jack Benny’s old comedy radio shows, which dominated the 8 pm Sunday time slot for decades. But they won’t.

For many years, Jack Benny had a radio feud with a comedian named Fred Allen, who is today even more obscure than Benny. Fred Allen, one of the most popular stars at the time, a titan of vaudeville, radio and movies, saw it all coming; he titled his autobiography, Treadmill to Oblivion. It’s a really excellent book, by the way, acclaimed and wildly popular in its time. It’s out of print.

The Limits of Legacy

There are many historical and cultural factors that can determine who is remembered and who is forgotten. Wealth, power and social status are some of the factors that can influence how someone is remembered. For example, people who have held positions of power or influence, such as political leaders or wealthy individuals, are often remembered for their accomplishments or contributions to society. Julius Caesar killed a lot of people and was himself murdered, although his military strategies were ingenious and are still studied today. He leaves a legacy.

However, it’s important to note that the process of remembering and forgetting is not always fair or equitable. The selection of what is worthy of being preserved for future generations can be influenced by cultural and political reasons. Some people may be forgotten despite their contributions or accomplishments.

And some people may be remembered in ways that no one would especially desire. In 1974, Tom Stoppard wrote a play called “Travesties,” which centers on the figure of Henry Carr, an elderly man who reminisces about Zurich in 1917 during the First World War and his interactions with James Joyce when he was writing Ulysses, Tristan Tzara during the rise of Dada, and Lenin leading up to the Russian Revolution. Stoppard chose to feature Carr, a real-life figure whose main claim to fame was a little-known dispute with Joyce, because of Carr’s comical obscurity; Carr’s legacy, today, is that of a hapless fellow who inadvertently inspired a great play.

Similarly, Lisa Gherardini and Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga are remembered today, hundreds of years after their respective deaths, not for their own accomplishments, but as the inspiration for great works of art. You don’t even know their names, but you know their faces. The latter lived only to the age of eight, but his legacy has inspired the world for hundreds of years; he would doubtless have preferred a full life to an artistic legacy. Emmett Till’s murder helped bring about the civil rights movement; he inspired Rosa Parks to remain seated. “I thought of Emmett Till and when the bus driver ordered me to move to the back,” she later said. “I just couldn’t move.”

Emmett Till’s legacy is famous and impactful.

Still, he would have preferred a quiet childhood and a long life of obscurity.

Finding Meaning in a Legacy-less Life

Is there “meaning” in a forgotten life? A process known as “meaning-making” has arisen to address specifically that quandary. 

Meaning-making is not a concept that was created by one person, but rather a term that has been used by various thinkers and researchers from different fields and disciplines, including Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and holocaust survivor,  who wrote about the importance of finding meaning in life, especially in the face of suffering and adversity, Robert Kegan, the  developmental psychologist who used the term “meaning-making” as a key concept in his theories of human development and counseling, and Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, educational critics and promoters of inquiry education who published a chapter called “Meaning Making” in their book Teaching as a Subversive Activity.

Meaning-making is a process by which you can construe, understand or make sense of life events, relationships and the self. Widely used in constructivist approaches to counseling psychology and psychotherapy as a way of learning that involves identities and emotions, meaning-making can help you find purpose and fulfillment in life, even if you are not remembered by future generations, and to develop more nuanced, complex and useful beliefs to live a better, more whole and happy life, to value life in this moment and to live and love fully, knowing that you may not get another chance.

Twenty years after your death, that editorial assistant who worked for you for six months at Novelty Press will occasionally recall that you were boring but OK and that guy who moved into the apartment on the 4th floor of your co-op in Park Slope will tell his grandkids what an asshole you were. And they will both be right. And twenty years after that, they will both be dead, and no one will know that the guy on the 4th floor of your co-op hated you, or that the editorial assistant at Novelty Press would have disagreed.

Finding meaning in life is a personal and subjective process that can vary from person to person, but there are a few easy rules of thumb: Focus on your relationships, pursue your passions and embrace the present moment.

Focus on relationships

Relationships with family, friends, partners, pets or community members can provide a sense of belonging, support, love and purpose. They can also enrich your lives with joy, laughter and shared experiences. To cultivate meaningful relationships, be present, attentive, empathetic and respectful of others — although you will not always succeed! (Accept your flaws, friend.) You can also express your gratitude, appreciation and affection for them. You can seek out people who share your values, interests and goals, and who inspire you to grow and learn.

Pursue your passions

Activities or causes in which you feel deeply interested or excited, or to which you are deeply committed, can provide you with a sense of fulfillment, creativity and self-expression. They can also challenge you to develop new skills, knowledge or perspectives. Identify what you enjoy doing, what you are good at or what you care about. Set realistic and attainable goals for yourself and celebrate your progress and achievements. Seek out opportunities to share your passions with others who appreciate them or benefit from them. It may be birdwatching, something that no one will note a hundred years from now. OK, then; pursue your passion for birdwatching and let future generations pay no attention.

Embrace the present moment

The present moment is the only moment over which you have control and that you can experience fully. It is also the moment that contains the most potential for meaning and happiness. To embrace the present moment, be mindful of your thoughts, feelings, sensations and surroundings. Practice gratitude for what you have and acceptance of what you cannot change. Seek out moments of beauty, wonder and awe in nature, art, music or spirituality.

How Was Your Day, Today?

While the desire to leave a legacy is understandable, consider the possibility that it’s not necessary, that it’s not even desirable. Embrace the present, focus on living a meaningful life now and find ways to make a positive impact in your own way. How was today? No one will remember it in a year’s time, you won’t even remember it a year from now, but you are experiencing it now, and how was it?

Shakespeare wrote that the evil people do will live on; but the good that people do will be utterly forgotten, “interred with their bones.” If you have done something terrible, people will really remember you. If you do something good … eh, not so much, as the kids say.

How many diners enjoyed the Sumptuary Restaurant during the 35 years that it graced the second floor of its 3rd Avenue storefront in Manhattan? Many many many! Yet who will speak of it in a hundred years? Who speaks of it today? Still, I had many great meals there. It was worthwhile, it was beautiful, during every single moment that it lasted and not a moment longer.

So what’s so bad about not being remembered a hundred years from now?

Not Even the Universe is a Forever-Thing

As I wrote back in 2012,

[A]m I the only person alive today who has read all Ishbel Ross’s novels? Are my daughters the only modern children who have read Peggy and Paul and Laddy? Including the authors’ families? I think I take a little strange pride in being a huge fan of something no one else remembers. Don’t even get me started on the Cleek books, the unfinished version of The Thief and the Cobbler, and the late Randy VanWarmer’s Terraform album. (Really. If you bump into me at a party, don’t get me started.)

…. We think that literary and commercial success brings us immortality of a certain sort. But it’s immortality of the most transient kind, which is to say, not immortality at all – it just seems like immortality while it’s happening. The same way everyone always insists that we will live on in the hearts of those who knew us, it’s the beauty of a firefly’s light. But a writer, musician or artist can still always dream that someday, seventy or eighty or a hundred years from now, we’ll entertain someone again, someone wandering through a dusty bookstore or looking on a shelf at a ramshackle vacation rental. So there’s always hope, I guess.

Till the human race goes extinct, that is, or the universe collapses.

There are two trillion galaxies in the universe, and around two million quintillion planets. There are only seven and a half quintillion grains of sand on Earth, which means that there are 267,000 times more planets out there than grains of sand on Earth. We are living our silly and insignificant little lives on just one of them. As I noted in 2017, our whole planet is less significant than a grain of sand on the beach. Our most famous and significant Earthling ever (Barack Obama? David Bowie? Cleopatra?) is less than a gnat in the whole scheme of things, because Earth is less than a gnat in the whole scheme of things.

It’s all beyond your comprehension; you will drive yourself crazy trying to make sense of any of it.

So: Enjoy the here and now, on this grain of sand, if you can. Don’t worry about your legacy. Don’t even think about it.



Written by Steven S. Drachman; content and illustration © Oblivioni.

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