Living a Legacy
Issue 74 November 2010
Alfred Nobel is most famed for the Nobel Peace prize created in his name. But did you know that Alfred Nobel is also the inventor of dynamite? I didn’t. Apparently, one of his key motivations behind the creation of the prize was the publication of his obituary – prematurely, as he was still alive. The headline boldly stated, “The merchant of death is dead.” Alfred did not want to be remembered thus, and so created the prize. His name is now associated with peace, not death and destruction.
At my grandmother’s funeral last November, a woman came up to me and told me that she wanted to leave a legacy. My response to her was simple – perhaps too simple. ‘Don’t have your eye on how people will remember you in the future, just do the work with good intention now and the legacy will follow.’ I felt that to worry about your legacy was not to be fully sincere to the work you are engaged with; that a focus or concern on how people will remember you is rather as the people described in a hadith of the Prophet: a martyr, a learned person and a rich donor. All three will say on the Day of Judgement that they had done what they did for God, and God will respond: But you lie. You fought in order to be called a hero; in order to be called a scholar; in order to be known as a benefactor, and so you received your rewards in the world.
This hadith always scares me because I fear if my good deeds bear the wrong intention; and that God will reject them because the rewards for those deeds had already been received in this world. I suppose such contemplation is part of the struggle with one’s inner state. Our outer state is difficult to work on – making sure our behaviour is in alignment with the Divine decree. Yet it is the inner heart on which we will be judged by God, and it is our inner state which is the hardest to perfect and refine. As the Prophet said when he returned from battle, “We have left the lesser struggle for the greater struggle, the struggle with one’s nafs – ego/self.” And this is what led me to respond to the woman as I did.
However, reading Nobel’s story made me think that perhaps a concern for what memories people have of you may have some positive value. If we begin to contemplate our outer actions towards others through their eyes, maybe we can actually improve our inner state.
Will our children remember us as patient, loving and caring? Or will they remember the rushing, the discipline and the hours we weren’t there? Will our parents think of us as attentive and a source of joy, or will they remember the burdens that we placed on them? Will our neighbours comment on how hospitable we were and how we gave them a sense of security? Or will they not even notice our passing or worse, be grateful that we have moved on?
I do not believe we should live with one eye on our legacy hoping that people will be struck with awe at the mention of our name, but to think occasionally about what we are leaving behind may make us more careful about how we actually live.
Once we die, of course we will have no interest in our legacies. This world will be over for us, but there are some things that benefit the dead and perhaps this is the legacy we should be aiming for. “When a human being dies, all of his deeds are terminated except for three types: an ongoing charity, knowledge from which others benefit, and a righteous child who prays for him.” If we decide we want to live in pursuit of excellence and strive to contribute to those around us - not to be remembered and eulogised in this world - but to make this world a better place, then maybe concerns for people’s future memories of us is not so bad.
Even if we live a quiet life, as long as it is one of compassion and care for others, then how people remember us will be determined. I reminded the woman at the funeral that my grandmother’s legacy was in the faces of the people that she could see around her now: children, grandchildren, great and great-great grandchildren brought up to be honest and true. That is a formidable legacy, but I know that when my grandmother was alive she was not contemplating how she would be remembered when she was dead. Rather, she got on with the business of living with righteousness and dignity, and as such, she was able to touch so many hearts.