Several years ago while camping, I had an inexplicable urge to strew pages of my notebook around the campground–to leave an anonymous, short-lived legacy. But I didn’t want to lose the writing itself, so I painstakingly highlighted my most valued entries and copied them onto a new piece of lined paper. The next morning I laid it in the middle of a popular trail where I knew someone would find it. And alas, when I came to check on it later that day, I found it in the exact same place, untouched.
This is, more or less, the story of our lives.
Whether the legacy of a day’s work or the legacy of a decade, we each have our own idea of which of our works or deeds is the best. (Writers are particularly guilty of this.) We cradle it and invest in it before handing it over to the big wide world.
But the world might not even notice. The world, in fact, will probably assign you a different legacy.
I’m reminded of all the writers and artists who are most known for one work but personally favored one of their lesser-known pieces. The author of the Chronicles of Narnia series, C.S. Lewis, thought his best work was a novel that retells the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche.
In an interview with the Sunday Book Review, author Roger Rosenblatt is asked (and answers):
And in a blog post on her website, author Tess Gerritsen writes:
So what’s the common thread in all of these examples?
Each writer valued the lesser-known work because it happened to be the one they invested the most in.
- C.S. Lewis did not take long to write the actual book, but he had been thinking about retelling that Greek myth for decades.
- Roger Rosenblatt cherished his book about his daughter because it was an outpouring of intense grief.
- Tess Gerritsen was writing about an idea that struck her with fear and wonder.
We don’t ask ourselves which of our legacies the world wants and needs. We tend to ask ourselves: Which of my possible legacies required the greatest effort? Where, in other words, did I do the most living?
In a way, we’re afraid of being known for just one thing. Or for the wrong thing. In a world of immediate digital publication and permanent online archives, it’s easy to regret something that can’t easily be dropped from our names.
The poet W. H. Auden had many such regrets, particularly of his early poem “September 1, 1939”. In Maria Konnikova’s Atlantic article titled “When Authors Disown Their Work, Should Readers Care?”, she makes an important point about Auden’s response to the regret:
We should remember that Auden’s instructions to Mendelson had an important caveat. “I once asked him what he wanted done with the poem, what I should do as his literary executor,” Mendelson recalled on the occasion of what would have been Auden’s 100th birthday. “And he thought for a moment and said, ‘I don’t want it reprinted during my lifetime.'” That “during my lifetime” is key. Auden didn’t want anything destroyed. He just didn’t want to see it, to have it haunt him, taunt him, even, in his advancing age.
What Auden was saying, in effect, was that he recognized his regret might be insignificant. Posterity might value this poem more than he did.
He left his legacy up to the world. And as a result, this poem he so personally disliked became one of his most-quoted and most-loved after he died.
That takes an awful great deal of humility. If it were up to me, I would meticulously craft an image of myself that I liked the best.
The hard, beautiful truth is this though: your legacy might just surprise you.
It might be an idea that came out of nowhere, a decision made without a second thought, or a first draft tucked behind your office desk.
(But that’s for the world to find out, and for you to never know.)