The Truth About Leaving a Legacy After Death

I hear all the time about the importance of leaving a legacy after death. But, this can be dangerous advice leading to depression if you’re not careful.

So yes, I don’t agree with the entire premise of leaving a legacy after death at all costs. To top it off, this advice just doesn’t make much sense.

I’m not trying to sound cynical. Rather, I’m opening the door to allow you to live your life to the fullest.

Leaving a legacy after death

In society, we hear all about leaving behind a long-lasting legacy. A legacy that’s worth remembering for generations to come.

So, in the future, when someone brings up a specific subject they’ll think of you. This rosy vision drives people to do all types of crazy things. For example:

  • Pursuing things you absolutely hate for decades on end.
  • Living life with a mask on. Pretending to be someone who you’re not.
  • Pushing loved ones away from you.
  • Never pursuing something that sparks joy inside of you.
  • Trying to prove yourself to people who you hate to the detriment of your own health.

Marcus Aurelius on leaving behind a legacy

“People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.”

This is a quote by Marcus Aurelius. One of the great Roman emperors who ruled near 2,000 years ago.

Marcus was a unique and very smart man. Given his place in society, he understood our transient place in the Universe.

You may argue and tell me Marcus’ legacy lived on. Considering I’m writing about him now.

But, important to note, I specifically searched for this type of quote. I’ve read countless other versions of this quote.

I ended up using Marcus’ version only to make a point. A man in his position still pondered these thoughts.

To that end, society programs humans to find greater value in words from public figures. Hence my quote selection for my public article.

All in all, my point still stands if I used a quote from anyone else. You can search through scrolls, books, and today’s digital media. You’ll find a record of hundreds of millions of people saying all types of things.

The human timeline put into perspective

Let’s go over some numbers on modern Homo sapiens.

According to PRB, nearly 109 billion modern Homo sapiens have lived on Earth.

Now, go back only 200 or so years from today. Think of how many people you know from then and going back further.

I’m guessing not many relative to the billions of people who have once walked on Earth.

Even more, in 30 years from today, the total number of modern Homo sapiens will grow to over 113 billion.

Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs 

giza plateau in egypt great pyramid and sphynx
Giza Plateau (Photo Credit: Lea Kobal)

Let’s rewind back around 3,300 years. Below is a shortlist of Pharaohs that once ruled Ancient Egypt.

  • Ramesses II (1303 BC – 1213 BC)
  • Amenhotep III (1391 BC – 1353 BC)
  • Tutankhamun (1341 BC – 1323 BC)
  • Xerxes I (519 – 465 BC)
  • Akhenaten (around 1380 BC – 1334 BC)

I’m guessing you recognize a couple of these names from high school history and movies. But, ask yourself these questions:

  • What do you really know about these pharaohs?
  • Have you learned anything from them?
  • Do they strike a certain feeling inside of you?

At one time, people considered these pharaohs to be living gods.

Each of these pharaohs had a story to tell. They had missions for their followers who soaked in their every word.

To put this into context, not one social media influencer today holds a candle to this level of influence.

Roman Emperors

Let’s go one step further. We’ll now go back around 2,000 years to when Ancient Rome ruled the world.

Doing the same exercise, here’s a shortlist of the greatest Roman emperors:

  • Vespasian (November 9 AD – 23 June, 79 AD)
  • Hadrian (January 76 AD – 10 July, 138 AD)
  • Claudius (August 10 BC – 13 October, 54 AD)
  • Tiberius (16 November, 42 BC – 16 March, 37 AD)
  • Marcus Aurelius (April 121 AD – 17 March, 180 AD)

Again, these men held the most power of any person in their time. They were also considered gods.

Yet, with every passing decade, their memory fades even more.

The truth about your legacy

I’m going to go over some unmentioned truths on leaving a legacy after death.

#1) The human condition

Humans by nature want to leave behind a legacy. The reason for this is two-fold.

Evolutionary: the desire to pass down information seems to be an evolutionary trait. Passing information to your offspring or group will increase your species survival chance.

What’s more, humans are social creatures. We are well aware of our positions in groups. Most of what we do is to gain recognition.

Coping mechanism: it’s a way our minds cope with our short lives. The fear of becoming nothing after death.

The thought of leaving something behind gives people a sense of comfort. You’ll live on in some capacity when you’re gone.

This is the closest thing to immortality. But, no one can escape the reality of death.

#2) The reality of death

Once you’re gone, you will not know who remembers you. Your consciousness from what we understand today will be gone.

So, what does it matter what you leave behind? Attaching a name to an accomplishment serves nothing to the person who passed away.

Important Note: I know this is a loaded subject matter. I’m only viewing this subject from a scientific lens. 

#3) The passage of time

We remember a few names among billions who have died in human history.

Of those few people, most lived less than 500 years ago. These were the exceptional few, who stood out among everyone.

To throw out a few names:

  • Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727)
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
  • Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882)

I’m guessing Mozart never thought his music would live on for generations after his death. He may have even hoped his music would live forever. But, I bet he received the greatest joy from knowing people in his time enjoyed his music.

If today, 100-million people listen to his music every day, what difference does it make to him?

In the end, Mozart’s music will fade away too. I hope not anytime soon though.

To that end, what will people 1,000 years from today remember? Then, how about after 10,000 years? These names we consider unforgettable will soon fade into time too.

For example, if I tell my young cousin about Steve Jobs, the great Apple CEO. Or, Wilt Chamberlain, the great NBA player, they wouldn’t know who they are.

Frankly, if I even told them, they wouldn’t care. Both of these great men passed away less than 25 years ago too.

The kids of my cousins would then have their own Steve Jobs and Wilt Chamberlain figures to look up to.

A deeper perspective into your legacy

In 1.1 billion years, the brightness of the Sun will increase by 10%. This means Earth will absorb greater heat.

This added solar energy will cause a very moist greenhouse effect. In other words, the Earth’s atmosphere will dry out.

We’d lose water vapor to space with every passing year. Large life forms like us would go extinct.

But, if that doesn’t kill us, the sun will continue to expand as it uses more hydrogen in its core. The expansion will continue until the Sun becomes a red giant.

In theory, at this stage, the Sun could engulf Earth. Earth would be no more.

Timeline of Sun’s red giant phase

Important to note, we measure this timeline in billions of years. So, we’ll be okay for the foreseeable future.

But, that’s if we avoid destruction from other cataclysmic events.

I discussed one of the many possible events that could ravage Earth and kill many humans. A powerful coronal mass ejection.

So if we do dodge every cataclysmic event, we’d need to eventually find a new home in space.

In other words, a new star to power life. A new planet to call home. And this is if biological life even exists then.

But, for sake of discussion, let’s assume biological life will exist.

andromeda galaxy
Andromeda Galaxy (Photo Credit: Guillermo Ferla)

On that note, we need to understand our place in the universe for perspective. The best way to do this is to view space using astronomical scales.

  • The nearest star to Earth is Alpha Centauri A at 4.3 light-years away.
  • Our Milky Way galaxy is 105,700 light-years wide.
  • The nearest galaxy to us is the Andromeda galaxy. It’s 2.5 million light-years away.

To put these numbers into perspective. A light-year is the distance light travels in a single year.

Try to wrap your head around the speed of light: 670,616,629 miles per hour.

I can’t imagine biological life traveling these distances. Even if we had the technology to travel far distances.

Artificial Super Intelligence (ASI)

robot-with-artificial-intelligence
A robot with artificial intelligence (Photo Credit: Franck V.)

Now, let’s say we humans find a way to dodge everything the universe throws at us for a billion years.

What would life then look like?

I believe by then, ASI would replace biological life. In the past 50 years, we’ve made amazing strides towards this tech.

Every year the tech is evolving faster and faster too. Now imagine a thousand years or even a couple of million years from now. In the history of Earth, this timeline is but a speck.

In short, ASI will replace the human condition. ASI will forgo emotions for logic.

Leaving a legacy after death will have no meaning whatsoever at that point. We’ll reach the technological singularity.

The danger of living life solely for creating a legacy

Let’s go over 3 ways of how the sole goal of leaving a legacy after death can be dangerous.

1) Living for others: you’ll only live to find validation through others. Today, this means doing everything and anything to get more likes and follows on social media.

Doing one sensational thing after another.

Also, becoming obsessed with chasing accomplishment after accomplishment. All the while, being miserable on the inside.

Now, go back and read Marcus Aurelius’ quote that I used earlier.

2) Loved ones: you’ll neglect your loved ones. Your sole goal will be to chase after a phantom legacy after death.

Legacy chasers typically march to the beat of their own drum. They think the greater their accomplishment the greater chance people will remember them.

3) Your passions: you’ll chase after something you hate only to gain clout. Then, you’ll place your true passion on the side and never get to it.

This will eat away at you. Behind all your smiles, you’ll feel like a fraud.

A better way to lead your life

Let’s now put aside all the doom and gloom.

I’m not saying to not have goals and not do great things. Not at all. I encourage everyone to pursue great things if that’s the passion inside your heart of hearts.

If that passion is to send rockets into space like Elon Musk, then go after it. But do it for you.

Do it because, in your small stint on this planet, you can’t think of anything better you’d rather do.

In other words, you’d still pursue your work if you received no recognition at all.

In short, don’t let other people and a legacy that means nothing, in the end, dictate how you live your life today. You’ll miss out on the smaller things in life.

By pursuing a passion that gives you joy every day, you’ll leave behind your footprint. Even, if that footprint only lasts twenty years. Think of it as a bonus.

For me, I work towards things that’ll benefit my family and everyone else who I can help. Also, my professional pursuits I enjoy because I have a deep passion for my work.

If my work makes a big difference in the world, then great. If not, life will move on one way or another.

Leveraging the thought of leaving a legacy after death

If this is all difficult to process, then go ahead and use it to your advantage.

What I mean is, if leaving behind a legacy motivates you, then leverage it. Use it to become more productive while you’re on this tiny blue rock.

But, understand the mechanics of why we want to leave a legacy after death.

Conclusion

We are an insignificant spec in the history of our planet. Let alone in the universe. But, we are significant to ourselves.

So, don’t chase a phantom legacy to lose yourself in the present. The years will pass you by fast.

Next thing you know, you’ll have regrets at the end of your life.

Instead, pursue things for the right reasons, and you can better sleep at night. And maybe, you may even become more productive in your work.

What’s your perspective on leaving a legacy after death?


Featured Image Photo Credit: Nils (image cropped)

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