Perhaps it's being in transition. Perhaps it's moving some distance from family. Perhaps it's reading Victor Hugo's monumental Les Misérables. Perhaps something else has been the catalyst, but recently I've been musing some about legacies and the anonymity with which most people live and die.
Consider two individuals who were not anonymous and who were near contemporaries two millennia ago. First, Julius Caesar imposed himself on the shaky structures of the Roman republic, transforming it into an empire. He is survived by some of his writings, his image memorialized in sculpture and coins that still survive, and the month of July was named in his honor. The twenty-first century world is certainly different because of Caesar, but without knowing what this century would be like had Julius Caesar never lived it is difficult to specify the differences attributable to him.
Second, Jesus of Nazareth left no writings and no actual likeness of him survives, if one was even made. Yet the world is assuredly different because of Jesus. In some way, of which scholars debate virtually every detail, Jesus' relationship with his closest followers so moved them that after his death they formed what began as a new Jewish sect and quickly morphed into a new religion, Christianity. Claims that Jesus rose from the dead are the most facile explanation of what happened. Most non-Christians reject that claim. And among Christians diverse, contradictory explanations of Jesus' alleged resurrection have contended for adherents, persisting in spite of efforts by an orthodoxy established in the fourth century to suppress all competing views as heresy. Other explanations of Jesus' life-altering effect on his original followers usually emphasize his personal charisma.
The world is better and worse because of Jesus. By at least one historian's count, religion caused approximately ten percent of all wars. Presume Christianity caused a substantial portion of those wars. Christianity also has contributed to the evils of colonialism, racism, sexism, etc. Conversely, Christianity has inspired great altruism that has stopped wars, fed the hungry, cared for the sick, motivated educational and charitable organizations, inspired support for human rights, etc. Assessing the magnitude of the evil attributed to Christianity seems a simpler task than assessing the magnitude of the good attributable to Christianity. Much of the evil is both visible and specific: the number of people killed or injured, the amount of property damaged, etc. Of course, the injury to minds, with the follow-on second or third order effects, is impossible to quantify. Conversely, measuring the number of lives saved or bettered by a physician who cares for the sick because of Jesus represents a much more difficult calculation: the number of the physician's patients may be known, but the percent who would have died if not treated by that physician is indeterminable. Furthermore, the good done to minds, with follow-on second and third order effects, like the evil done to minds, is unquantifiable.
I expect to die in anonymity, even as I have happily chosen to live in anonymity. My writings, much as I might occasionally wish to the contrary, will soon pass into oblivion, even on the internet. The few extant likenesses of me (photographs, sketches, digital images, etc.) will soon disappear, lose any tag that identifies the likeness with me, or pass into the hands of people who never knew me and have no interest in preserving my memory. I will happily give my allotted 15 minutes of fame to any successful claimant.
Children are the most common way in which people hope to leave a mark upon the world. Jesus sired no known offspring. Julius Caesar's biological children all died at a relatively young age; they are no more than footnotes to his life. Christianity remembers Jesus' presents. Caesar's parents are forgotten. In both cases, neither man would have changed the world had it not been for his parents. In common with an increasing number of people in the developed world, I will leave no progeny.
Consequently, the relative handful of people I have known in my life (they total in the thousands, but on a globe populated by seven billion people, this is a relative handful) constitute the most probable way in which my living will have made a difference. Nobody has the wisdom and knowledge to identify, much less quantify, the good – and the inevitable even if unintentional evil – that I have done. Incidentally, some cultures have employed the idea of an all-knowing being who rewards the good and punishes the bad (.e.g., God, according to some Islamic, Christian, and other theological traditions; Santa Claus in folklore) to motivate good behavior and dissuade putative miscreants.
If biologists are correct and genes have an inherent drive to perpetuate themselves, then humans – an arguably unique species because of our limited autonomy and spirituality – have a similar, inherent drive to perpetuate ourselves through some form of legacy.
What is the legacy you wish to leave?
Do you wish the world to remember you as a statesperson, military leader, author, inventor, artist, or?
Do you wish the world to remember you personally or simply to leave the world a different, hopefully better, place because you lived?
Do you wish your legacy to be like that of Jesus, where the individual is forgotten (Christian theologians describe this as kenosis, self-emptying), and the lives of others changed for the good (the abundant life that so many of those who live in Jesus' name continue to experience)?