Mini-Feature: Leaving a Legacy

What lives on?

What actions in your life will have the longest reaching consequences? How long will those effects be felt?

What we do in life echoes in eternity, as the man said. But let's say you reject Christianity and, indeed, all the other religions that say something similar about the connection of our lives to the eternal. The motivation of the most ambitious men, even if they reject the eternal in vulgar, arrogant, or ignorant fashion, is to be remembered for their deeds and influence—that is to say, to be known for the glory of their virtue. That's what the fame in the greatest sense is, and the most ambitious desire it. But the same applies to everyone and their family: the real place most of us live on in the world we leave behind is not only as memories in their souls but to the extent we were formative of the inner and outer lives of our family and friends. For some, this influence extends to churches and nations and other institutions that live on.

But what if, as time goes on, there is also a larger sense in which "the universe itself is improving its records, that it tends to preserve its own past in an objective manner." Thomist Charles De Koninck suggested as much in an unpublished lecture once. For instance, "[t]he cooling off of the earth has not only made life possible, it has preserved traces of life in its pleats", and although it is now a great scandal to suggest as much it seems that at "a certain stage of evolution that nature begin[s] to make documents of life, and preserve it for the mind, that higher form of life. Man and the fossils are not just a coincidence. Life tends to reach itself." 

But as he also suggested:

The advent of the greatest source of historical documents. Not so much by the traces of intelligence in carved stones, arms and debris of huts, etc. It is the advent of man the historian that constitutes the greatest of all historical documents. Man constructing monuments to honour heroes and conquests. Herein he is fighting the destruction of time. The world is striving to escape oblivion, and free itself of the past, by furnishing documents for the future. Henceforth there will be intelligent communication between past and present. Building imperishable monuments, they believed both in the past and in the future. The future must not be without the glory or the tragedy of the past.

In this perspective we see that the universe tends to embrace itself in mind, and to be present to itself with all its past.

Now consider on top of all that the nature of digital technology, which is memory. All it really is is storing stuffs to be easily retrieved, even if that stuff is reacting to what is happening now. So human beings are now recording more and more for easy retrieval. This is not necessary—few things are—and it could all end tomorrow. But consider the possibility that even in nature and evolution writ large we see signs of striving for a perpetuation of the past to the present on into the future. Human thought brings all three together.

Wait, you want me to answer the question? Well, the upshot is, first, whether or not you believe what you do in life echoes in eternity, it will echo in the lives of those around you in ways beyond what you think possible. Think about how many others have deeply affected you for good or ill without even realizing it. 

Don't care? Well, realize that, second, what you do in life is being increasingly recorded in various ways so that even those who don't know you will one day have access to you. Every part of your life that is digitally recorded will probably eventually be retrieved.

In fact, billions of people will probably have some access to you and your past actions. You can't be so foolish as to think it will all just disappear for certain, or count upon some kind of necessary cataclysm to wipe it all out soon, or believe that the historians of the future won't be able to recreate a good chunk of our real time lives on a massive scale for billions of people given digital access to all our personal data and all the public data and recordings that are ever increasing, including our very movements over the course of our lives? All will be recorded as our ability to write the past into grains of sand (silicon, dummy, but only for now—we will learn ways to write code into longer lasting existence as time goes on) increases exponentially every year.

You realize that nothing is private on the internet, right? 

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind

In a culture trapped oscillating between the increasingly automated explication of facts on the one hand and fantasies on the other, true mystery, the kind that can’t be reduced to the vague sensation of something numinous, becomes a precious pearl hidden in plain sight.

Despite our best efforts at explicating right thoughts, words, and plans, there is no formula for knowing or predicting what actions will reverberate with the best or even the most enduring effects. There is a fundamental nonownership of our own deeds in this sense. In such a condition “our best” is to take responsibility for what we do, even if, at bottom, we cannot fully or truly know what we do. This responsibility comes through the humility of judgment, of being obliged to make our imperfect judgments, of shooting our arrows despite knowing it is inescapable that we so often miss our mark.

This is one reason why continuing our family lines is so often the most we can do to leave an effect behind. But often is not always—especially if we throw our children into a world without any understanding of the truth about the quiddity and the mystery of our given life.

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

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Having children. 

The effects will be felt as long as my seed propagates itself. When I am a grandfather, I will start addressing the family in biblical passages. For instance, when they are gathered at my knees, I may say something like: "And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you."

Really, I just want to inspire them not to put their God in a nursing home. 

-David Bahr, managing editor of The American Mind

I do hope some of my work will last. The thing that warms my heart most of all is when young men and women reach out to let me know something I said or wrote gave them courage. Usually this means courage to speak their minds in a hostile environment, or to live in a way that their peers disdain. 

People tell me they are seeking marriage, or working out, or having kids, in small part because in some minor way I helped them re-orient their priorities toward the true, the beautiful, and the good. More likely what I did is give them permission to admit that they already yearned for those things, and to seek them unabashedly—no matter how embarrassingly far away they seemed. Feedback of this kind is rich reward for a man to receive for his labor. 

Courage has knock-on effects, and virtue is a team sport. If the changes I’m seeing in my DMs are a representative sample of something bigger, then maybe decades from now I will have contributed to some kind of revolution in social mores—the kind we’ll need to have soon, or perish. The consequences of such a revolution will last, or else nothing of our ailing society will. 

And—the highest grace of all—sometimes the courage people find in my work is the courage to seek God, whom they long for but cannot imagine loving or knowing in this poisonous world. If I give people permission to do that—to pray, though it seems archaic, and believe, though it seems regressive—then that part of my work will have consequences whose reach is not merely long but eternal. Of course, though, should that be so, it will not have been my work at all.  

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind