“Someone asked me an interesting question yesterday,” Morrie said now, looking over my shoulder at the wall-hanging behind me, a quilt of hopeful messages that friends had stitched for him on his seventieth birthday. Each patch on the quilt had a different message: Stay the course, the best is yet to be, Morrie—Always No.1 in Metal Health!
What was the question I asked.
“If I worried about being forgotten after I died?”
Well? Do you?
“I don’t think I will be. I’ve got so many people who have been involved with me in close, intimate ways. And love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.”
p.133, Tuesdays with Morrie
I find that idea comforting, but ultimately I can’t believe it. Being remembered requires the people who know you spreading your name, otherwise when they die you will be forgotten. Even if they do spread your name around your identity will become blurred after being passed down through generations. Eventually, people will stop spreading the vague rumors of a man they never even knew and you will be forgotten. The memory of a man can live on a generation in the memories of those who loved him, and perhaps can live on another generation in their children, but memories fade. Few many people remember their great-great-great-great grandfather, and those that do are likely keepers of a family history that some unlucky afternoon will be burned in an unexpected blaze. Few can remember everyone who his father befriended, and even fewer can remember those people in addition to the people his grandfather befriended. Names fade over time, faces fade over time, and memories fade away, over time the memory of a man becomes scrambled, jumbled, or forgotten. After a person dies they are forgotten, maybe not in the first generation, maybe not in the second generation, but as time goes on they vanish from the minds of man.
The memories of some men can find a degree of immortality in history. Those who do great deeds their names are fused into our common heritage. Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Mao, these men are ingrained within the memory of civilization. Yet even these names can pass. The history of man goes back in some cases 5,000 years, but the people whose memories survived all that time are hazy shadows of people, only known for being depicted on a temple wall. The majority of figures, so incredibly famous in their own times have vanished, others are so entrenched in myth that they are no remembered only the legends. Some emerge, but for how long will the history of mankind have room for them. In another 10,000 years will they be remembered? Perhaps, but maybe just as foot notes to those who did greater deeds. How many great Khans have been forgotten under the shadow of Genghis Khan? At the height of their power they might have been the greatest on earth, now their memories have vanished since the memory of Genghis Khan is so much more attractive. Yet even his memory could be forgotten in another 10,000 years. Ultimately, 10,000 years is nothing compared to all the years yet to come, and these great men have just bought themselves a little extra time before being forgotten.
The world forgets its heroes, it forgets its villains. Times change and these things become irrelevant or at best academic. The accomplishments of men, those too become blurred in the millions of years history. If “the beating of a butterfly’s wings in Tokyo can eventually change the weather in New York City” (Bartleby.com) then a million years of butterflies can cause storms to destroy or mutate everything a man created. Our legacies, the memories of our name are controlled by the fickle currents of time. We cannot trust that our memory will go on after we die, we cannot trust our legacy will be remembered, all we can do is live a life we can be proud of and leave the rest to history.