Your existence is temporary but your impact endures
legacy (n.): anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor
Do you care about leaving a legacy?
Don’t answer yet. Just think about it.
Why should anyone care about leaving a legacy?
Think about evolution.
Legacy isn’t really a human invention. The desire to prolong our existence through ancestry or works is innate, like how animals fight viciously to survive in order to mate, reproduce, and propagate their lineage. In purely biological terms, legacy is the human iteration of a deep, animalistic drive to keep our species moving. Without that drive, our species doesn’t last beyond the next ice age. Legacy, then, is the pursuit of all life.
Biology would posit that legacy is programmed into our DNA. But our human desire for legacy is far more evolved than that of wild animals — our species is all but guaranteed to survive. Humans endeavor for legacy for much different reasons.
Think about the human condition.
Fear, ego, desire. These are the more likely reasons that humans strive to create a legacy.
Think about Alexander the Great, or Genghis Khan, or Julius Caesar. They strove to expand their empires to the ends of the earth, conquering and crushing everyone that stood in their way — but why? Not for survival.
In the way they are remembered, these men have become immortal. But ultimately their motivation was based on nothing more than their own self-glory. Throughout history, the wealthy and elite, the “conquerors,” strove for legacies, but only for selfish reasons, reasons like family name, religious tradition, and world domination.
For this, I always assumed that normal people don’t care about legacy. Most of us can’t. We live, we work, we get drunk, we have sex, and we die. We can’t care about building a tower, let alone an empire. Normal people lack the wealth, status, and self-obsession to pursue a legacy like that of Julius Caesar. Most of us don’t have the time. And yet everything in our culture tells us to leave something in the world to live on after we’ve died.
Cliches and trite Tumblr posts tell you that you should care about your reputation, even beyond death, Tumblr posts like,
Beyond social media, the amorphous mass we call culture, movies and books and broadway shows, would have you exalt the men and women who have left legacies, the Alexander Hamiltons and J. Paul Gettys.
But what’s the point of building a tower with your name on it when you can’t take it with you after you die? The Egyptian pharaohs already tried that. They’re posing for photos with tourists at British museums now.
If these are our examples of what legacy looks like, then legacy is futile. Beyond that, it is destructive. The pursuit of legacy has led to empires, slavery, genocide, and centuries of stagnation for the sake of tradition. Legacy, then, is not the survival of our species, but its doom…
But what about a legacy that has nothing to do with the individual? Are there other reasons that people should strive to build something that lives on? Don’t answer yet.
Think about Louis Pasteur. His discovery of penicillin radically affected the lives of millions, perhaps billions, and irrevocably altered the course of human history for the better. Pasteur’s decision not to patent penicillin set a precedent for life-saving cures that endures to this day.
I bet you’ve never heard of Norman Bourlag. He is responsible for bring nearly one billion people out of starvation thanks to farming techniques he invented in his early life. He revolutionized the way that countries like Mexico, India and Pakistan do agriculture, and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Congressional Gold Medal for the change that his work brought about.
What about Martin Luther King Jr.? He used his charisma and his platform to fight for equality among races, to shed light on the mistreatment and adversity faced by people of color. His legacy laid the groundwork for present day activists to continue to fight on for racial equality. Those who came after MLK Jr., people like Coretta Scott King, followed in his footsteps and have fought to allow women of color to feel empowered to follow in MLK’s footsteps. Long beyond his death, millions of citizens have been inspired by the work of MLK Jr., and continue to inspire and create change like Coretta Scott King. The legacies left by these two people continue to inspire others to work towards the betterment of society.
Without selfless legacies, the human race would not be where it is today: advanced, egalitarian, and headed toward the longest period of peace the world has ever known — and that is the difference.
There is legacy that stems from selfish desire and there is legacy that comes from selflessness. Selfish legacies keep the world at war while selflessness is an instrument of peace.
Louis Pasteur never set out to become wealthy. His intention was to save lives long after his own had ended. Normal Bourlag enjoyed little fame while he was alive, yet his work will continue to bring the world out of poverty for years into the future. MLK didn’t march from Selma to Montgomery out of ego. He fought for equality in the 1960’s so that black Americans in 2018 would enjoy rights that he never could. The countless unnamed, unknown individuals who dedicated their lives to change never strove to be remembered, but to bring about positive change in the lives of others for long beyond their own.
Legacy can be about so much more than ego. It can be about creating something for the greater good. It can be like a baton passed on to younger generations to be carried and sustained and built-upon. A legacy can be about continuing to give to the world even after our time is up. The pursuit of a legacy can give our lives meaning and purpose. It can allow us to forget our fears of immortality and insignificance and cast away our fears of not doing enough in this one lifetime.
We should care about legacy, and not only if our name is attached to it. A legacy isn’t just something the wealthy and elite should strive for; all of us have the ability to lead a life of selflessness. If we endeavor to do good for others while we’re alive, why not endeavor also to good for others after we’ve gone?
No matter how much money we earn, buildings we build, sex we have, or friends we make, we can’t take any of it with us after we die. We should care about legacy because legacy is a way to be selfless beyond death.
Written by Daniel Kelley and Jessica Rosales