We are egocentric creatures; the world is organized around the self. Even when faced with the absolute certainty of death, we look for ways to extend the self and live on in posterity. Some build monuments or libraries, create works of art, businesses, and charities… some forego the building and donate money to carry their name forward into the future. That our name is spoken, known and acknowledged is important to us even though we will be gone.
Those of us with fewer resources or ambition can still wish to live on in the minds and hearts of others, remembered for our good nature or deeds. We strive to create a personal legacy through family and friends, hoping our reputation continues after we have physically departed.
An even more immediate form of legacy is considering our impact in the world from moment to moment; thinking ahead to the consequences of our actions, words, and thoughts for ourselves and others, trying to be a positive influence.
I used to think of my legacy in terms of people that I “touched” for the better, and that healing would spread outward from person to person – a “pay it forward” concept that naturally happens on a more subtle level. Yet even this is ultimately a short-sighted view of our purpose in life.
All this intention and activity is still ego-driven. There is a “me” that is motivated by accumulating credit and prestige in relationship with others. We are concerned with achievements as defined by society, attributing value to our life as outwardly measured in the world.
Buildings crumble, get torn down or renamed. The physical world is in a constant state of change. I donated to restore a chapel in the Marin Headlands and had a bronze plate with my name on it prominently displayed. Some years later I saw that acknowledgement demoted to a plastic sign, one name among many and tucked away in a corner. I assume one day it will eventually disappear, my involvement lost to memory. The impact of good deeds also wanes as the effect of those beneficial or kind acts travels outward, dissipating like the ripple from a stone dropped in a lake, ultimately disappearing completely.
All this ego-driven activity relates to this particular life in the relative world. Yet we come into this life as a soul, entering into a body of form – it is what we come in with and what we leave with. Everything else is truly left behind, including our physical creations and acts that celebrate the ego, the identity that is thought to be who we are. The only true accumulation is our soul’s growth; even karma is just a by-product of this growth. Attending to our activity from moment to moment without attachment to outcome is the true opportunity of living this current life. It is not the result we leave behind that is important (we take on a whole world of suffering if we become invested in controlling or defining outcome), but the intrinsic value of soul evolution and growth over lifetimes that matters most.