"Make sure they spell my name right." ~Armand Silva, Fringe
We often wonder what posterity will think of us. Indeed, what mark will we make on the world? Will future generations remember our daring exploits, to become the stuff of legend? Will we be cursed and scorned, delegated to obscurity? Or will we be no one?
"...He will know her name
And be well pleased remembering it, for in the old days,
Though she had young men's praise and old men's blame,
Among the poor, both old and young gave her praise."
The lines above are from Her Praise, by William Butler Yeats, a paean to his longtime love, Maud Gonne. Gonne was a social worker - in the sense that she worked tirelessly to help the plight of so many of the poor, particularly the Irish. The poem is a very beautiful one, one of my personal favorites. In the poem, Yeats mentions that he discusses Gonne with his rich, well-to-do friends, and all of them scorn her due to associating with the riffraff. In fact, some ignore her entirely- they mention other things, like a new book.
Yet, when Yeats goes to the poor, he asks around to see if any know who Gonne is. If they are poor enough ("if rags be enough he will know her name") they will know her, and praise her, for all she did to help them.
That is Maud Gonne's legacy. Who today knows who she is? Apart from a biography, her name mentioned in conjunction with Yeats, and the above poem, that is her legacy. Very little for a legacy, don't you think?
The interesting thing is that so many people today are immortalized through a single reference, or through extremely few remnants of their life and times. Sappho, the ancient Greek poet, has less than 200 scraps of her poems to her name.
I mentioned once before in a post that we'd be lucky if we were remembered, 150 years from now, by our great-great-grandchildren. Unless your family is the type to recall every single ancestor since the time of George Washington, then, no, you will not be remembered. I don't know who my great-great-grandfather was. I'd like to know. But the tragic thing of having ancestors who lived in another country is that often there are no records of ancestry, no census data. The knowledge of my family goes up to about my great-grandfather, and that's about it. I have asked, time and again, about my ancestry. No one has information. Nor do I think I will find any.
For some (not me, necessarily, but it does unnerve me some), the idea of being forgotten after death (or even in life, at old age) is disturbing and unbearable. We all know the stereotype of the "poor, old, and alone" man or woman, forgotten by all, either with no family or scorned by the few members they have left. He or she dies alone, with no one by their bedside, no one to hear their last words. In a House episode, one of the best ever, an old, homeless man with terminal cancer goes up to Dr. Cameron and requests for her to watch him die. Throughout the episode, we see her sitting by his bedside, offering to give him morphine or something to ease the extremely painful death that is lung cancer. He refuses. He says that no one will remember him in life, and he needs to suffer, so someone can remember him - Dr. Cameron herself. That is pathos at its finest, and incredibly distressing.
So then, what must be do then, to attain immortality? Immortality in its true sense, to live forever, is impossible. However, in the metaphorical, historical sense, it is possible. To be remembered, celebrated for centuries after death, like so many historical figures, is very tricky. Humanity is fickle. We may think "Oh, well, we'll remember Kim Kardashian and Barack Obama and Justin Bieber in 2114!" Will we? Barack Obama is likely to be remembered. But there are so many presidents who have not, and will not, be remembered. Who knows who Millard Fillmore is, or Chester Arthur, besides the American History student or history buff? Kardashian and Bieber will likely be forgotten too. There are countless singers and personalities who were famous once, and then forgotten. Buddy Holly (well, not so much, if the proliferation of his hipster glasses are any indication), Bill Haley and many more singers from the '50s and beyond have been forgotten or remembered by comparatively few people not from the era in which they existed.
The sad truth is - very many of us will not be largely remembered by humanity. But you can make a difference in people - in someone's family, in a community, in many different places. Try to make a difference - and be remembered. This is an awkward topic to discuss, but I find it fascinating. But that's the way to achieve immortality - make a difference. A very big difference.
(And make friends with poets who will write in praise of you. That always helps.)