You will be forgotten

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If you’re doing all this (whatever your “all this” is) in order to be remembered (I would add be famous/rich/desired for the poets), you are wasting your time. Virtually none of us will be remembered, much less read, in 200 years. This is what I should send to my students who champ at the bit get published (like I did when I was starting out). Took me quite a while to come to that realization, but ever since I did, everything, from my quality of life to the quality of my art, has gotten better. The fact is that we matter, but only now. We matter to what’s around us and how we interact with that sphere. I wish I could go back and convince 26-year-old-me of that. Stop trying to hard to please others who aren’t right across the room from you. Build your life around you, take joy in the moment and the tangible, and leave the world a slightly better and prettier place than you found it. We’re all increments on a ruler called Time…. you can’t get to 30cm without the first millimeter (and micrometer and nanometer, etc.) Makes you wonder how things would have been if we hadn’t developed a species-wide fetish for individual accomplishment. That said, I am still trying to make that level of accomplishment. I strive, I build, I learn. If I get there, I will die happy. If I don’t, I’ll still die, but more like most everyone else. And either way, 200 years from now, it’s very unlikely I’ll be remembered, no matter how I go. And if not 200, then 500, 5000, or at the heat death of the universe. So my goal is to remember myself well to myself while I’m here.

It’s natural to find the thought that what we build in our life will die with us disturbing. (Though forms of its lasting can also be distressing; in his poem “Posterity,” Philip Larkin imagines being summed up by an irritated, unenthusiastic future biographer with “Oh, you know the thing / That crummy textbook stuff from Freshman Psych.”) No one wants to die. To ourselves, we matter, and we want what we do to matter to somebody else. We want our sacrifices to be worth it in a transcendent sense, our pain to have a purpose, our achievements to be permanent. A handful of life paths — intellectual and artistic work in particular — are about trying to create, as Horace wrote, “a monument more lasting than bronze.” They are a calculated gamble that a life dedicated to the difficult and narrow path will continue after our death, however unrewarding it might have been to experience.

But that we even have Horace’s poetry to read is as much a caprice of fate as a function of his poetic virtue. Some manuscripts survive the collapse of civilization, others do not; it seems unlikely that these survivals and disappearances precisely track merit. We have Horace and we are missing most of Sappho. We have Horace and we are missing wide swathes of Aeschylus. We have Horace but we do not have the complete works of Aristotle. Why some texts survive and not others can be a matter of historical record, but it is not necessarily a measure of their virtue. Survival is ultimately a matter of greatness, yes, but just as much, it’s about luck.

At some point in life, we come to realize that we exist in a context. If you are a scientist, you might make a small but useful contribution in your subfield, a subfield that is impossible to explain to anybody else. If you write short stories for literary magazines and exist in that ecosystem, you may not really exist to people outside of it. And — for most of us — our lives form part of the circumference of that context. We live a little while and then we go into the ground. Our children, if we have them, remember us, their children remember us a little less, their children even less, and so on until we are part of a school genealogy project.

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