If you ask people how they would like to be remembered, you will likely be met with silence, often with a look of bewilderment. Legacy is not something that most people give a lot of conscious thought to apart from material bequests. Psychologically though, at a deep subconscious level, how and for what we will be remembered is far important than many of us realize. For some of us this becomes clear as time passes.
To understand what an impact our inevitable mortality has on our behavior, all you have to do is imagine how different our goals, aspirations, and ambitions would be if we were truly immortal. For example, being poor at any given time would be far less important than the realization that, in an unlimited future, you would have plenty of time to achieve whatever you wanted in life. If you were broke today, there would be many opportunities to become wealthy, maybe not this year, but in a few centuries, no problem. If you wanted to be a doctor, lawyer, or scientist, no hurry; you could have a go at every career available.
But such is not the case. We are time constrained. If we are too slow to act, some windows of opportunity narrow and some slam shut.
If we dig deep in psychology, what the evidence suggests is that, on many levels and in many different ways, we human beings are engaged consciously and subconsciously in trying to do things that are meaningful.
The great difficulty in dealing with the essence of mortality is that to study the subject is to be restricted metaphorically to forever beating around the bush. We can get only so close but never bridge the distance and come back. Near-death experiences don’t count because they’re experiences all the same. We can imagine sleep as a time-out from consciousness, and yet we dream. The best we can do is try to think of time before we were born. When we do that, we can begin to grasp the consequential command of time.
If we dig deep in psychology, what the evidence suggests is that, on many levels and in many different ways, we human beings are engaged consciously and subconsciously in trying to do things that are meaningful. We seek such satisfaction not just in the moment, but for our lives to matter in the greater scheme of things. Our impending inevitable demise plays a big role in determining our behavior and our attitude toward others.
Ordinary citizens often talk about giving something back to society to compensate for the tax of their existence. Reflecting this idea, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote about our species’ drive to be a hero while simultaneously being prone to deny our mortality. David Solie, in his book How to Say It to Seniors, describes behavioral evidence that many aging citizens are groping and grasping for something to identify as their legacy without consciously realizing that this is what is on their minds.
One of the most inspiring writers I’ve encountered on the subject of mortality is Irvin D. Yalom, author of Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death. Yalom is a highly regarded psychiatrist who has ventured farther than most into the figurative thicket of mortality. In his first chapter, titled “The Mortal Wound,” he pulls no punches, declaring that the supreme gift of self-awareness comes at great cost. “Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and inevitably, diminish and die.”
He suggests the fear of death has a long reach, which is mostly subconscious, and that people who fear death the most are those who feel as if they have never truly lived. Further, he points out how Epicurus anticipated the notion of the unconscious by suggesting that excessive religiosity and an unrelenting drive for wealth and power represent counterfeit versions of immortality.
Yalom says of all of the ideas emerging from his practice none has been as powerful as the idea of rippling. He describes rippling as concentric circles of influence that we generate, often without being aware of what we are doing. These ripples become our legacy, and the ways we can spawn them are practically endless, bringing us back to time as a relentless taskmaster and as an overtly constraining force governing our very existence.
When we study the social psychology of culture, it becomes clear that what we decide is meaningful in life is a result of having bought into vast oceans of arbitrary assumptions. Thus, our cultural indoctrination, even in the best of circumstances, is haphazard and dehumanizing—dehumanizing precisely because of our suppressed anxiety and the aspirations we view as unachievable due to time limitations.
Culture is metaphorically an hourglass that pressurizes the act of living, while the brevity of life pits us against those we regard as outsiders. When we are reminded of our mortality, or when our interests appear to clash with those whom we deem to be others, what we tend to do is to take stock of our lives defensively as we reaffirm our beliefs and worldview. Simply put, we close ranks by distancing ourselves from people we can’t relate to.
We must loosen the grip of our respective cultural indoctrinations in order to stop concentrating on the pressurized cultural shoulds we have internalized subconsciously. When we begin to experience enough freedom of thought from our upbringing to put the remainder of our lives into practical perspective, we can create the kind of ripples we would like to set in motion and later be remembered for, independent of our culture’s arbitrary expectations.
This is not to say that what’s expected of us is by nature bad, only that it’s impersonal and ultimately disinterested in the details of how our lives actually turn out. In other words, we are expected to do something with our lives, but rarely are we told precisely what we must do to live them out.
In the world of self-help advice, we’re given myriad methods for finding the so-called truth of existence. Lots of these require magical thinking, and many are fraudulent. But, in my view, one way to gain some genuine insight into what we would like to be remembered for is to simply ponder our most cherished memories, compare them with our aspirations, and imagine what we would like to accomplish if we were truly immortal. Then we can concentrate on a realistic assessment of the time we have left to live, think it through, and set our hourglass accordingly.