“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”

Thomas Campbell

19th century Scottish poet

How Do You Want to be Remembered?

This past week was the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. And when we talk about September 11th, the thing we always say is how important it is to remember. How we should never forget.

I certainly haven’t forgotten. I’ve shared a lot of memories with my kids – who weren’t alive at the time – to help them understand what happened. 

And this week I’ve been wondering – WHY is it so important to remember? What exactly is the purpose of remembering? How much remembering is the right amount? And is there a right way to remember?

The word legacy first appeared in English in the late 14th century and referred mostly to an ‘ambassador’ who would distribute property as laid out in a will. Over time the meaning shifted to refer to the ‘property left in a will’. 

The meaning of legacy evolved again over the next few centuries to include the memories of a person. Thomas Campbell the 19th century Scottish Poet, said: “To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” The idea that we can live on through the memories of our loved ones is actually relatively new. It’s a beautiful idea at the heart of Mexican holiday, Dia de los Muertos and you can see it in many other cultures too.

The Pressure of Remembering

But if I’m really honest – remembering – and being remembered – feels like a lot of pressure. It’s pressure that I’m mostly putting on myself – to do memorable things – but also on my family…to document and remember me appropriately.

There aren’t any clear procedural guidelines. One part is just having conversations so the information passes from one brain to the next. To preserve it orally. But is talking about it enough?

You can write it down. There are services to do that if you aren’t inclined to become an author. Pictures are great. Though pictures that lack context can depreciate into garbage for future generations who don’t know the stories that go with them. Audio storytelling has a lot of potential and video might be the best way to fully capture the person as they were.

But what’s the difference between content and legacy? What are we optimizing for? How much remembering is enough remembering?

Rebecca Solnit On Legacy

Rebecca Solnit is an award-winning author. She’s written non-fiction books that required years of research and writing and editing. But the most popular thing she ever published is an essay called “Men Explain Things To Me” and it only took her a couple of hours to write. She wrote it effortlessly because it was based on a lifetime of experience and it spoke truth about how women are casually marginalized. Women recognized the truth immediately and it was a big influence on the #MeToo movement.

In her memoir she talks about legacy and why being remembered isn’t what actually matters. I want you to hear the whole passage because it totally changed how I think about my own legacy.

That’s what this episode is about. It’s a celebration of Solnit’s ability to characterize legacy as something restorative and sustainable.

Episode Credits

Laura – my wife – read the passage from Rebecca Solnit’s memoir. Pat Cupples provided original music for this episode. Additional music is from the band Hotels & Highways.

Photo credit: Jim Herrington via The New Republic