THERE’S A VIDEO currently doing the rounds on TikTok in which a person narrates, “Have you ever thought about this? In 100 years, so like in 2123, we will all be dead and buried along with all our friends and relatives. Strangers will live in the homes we fought so hard to build and they will own everything we have today. All our possessions will be unknown and unborn, including the car we spent a fortune on and will probably be scrap, preferably in the hands of an unknown collector. Our descendants will hardly know who we are, nor will they remember us. How many of us know who our grandfather’s father was? After we die, we will be remembered for a few more years and then we are just a portrait on someone’s bookshelf and a few years later our history, photos and deeds disappear into history’s oblivion. We won’t even be memories. If we paused one day to analyse these questions, perhaps we would understand how ignorant and weak the dream to achieve it all was. If only we could think about this, surely our approaches and thoughts would change and we would be different people.”
The post, by @roadside_romeo_01, has over 2m views, 88k likes and 4k comments and has generated a variety of responses from users:
“I needed to hear this, I wasn’t depressed enough”, said one user.
“This made me so sad,” added another.
Others saw the post as a call to arms: “Live for today. Live in the moment,” said one user.
“Make choices that make YOU happy… even if it means your ‘happy’ is not what others see,” said someone else.
“Just enjoy the present… stop overthinking.”
I thought of the post after hearing of the death last week of former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was probably one of the most famous men of the 1970s. I first heard of him while watching a re-run of Fawlty Towers as a kid and figured he was a big deal. Later I would learn the extent of his achievements—pioneering the policy of détente with the Soviet Union, orchestrating the opening of relations with China, engaging in “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East to end the Yom Kippur War, and negotiating the Paris Peace Accords, which ended American involvement in the Vietnam War. It’s quite a resume, I’m sure you’ll agree, although his legacy is more complicated these days. But how many people under 30 have even heard of him? Or his successor, Cyrus Roberts Vance. Probably few.
The same could be said of another ’70s luminary, Warren Beatty, who was once the biggest star in the world, the Timothée Chalamet of his day. Now he’s a decrepit senior citizen that few under 25 have likely heard of, though he did have a moment during the Oscar’s Moonlight/La La Land stuff up on stage back in 2017 that briefly put him back in the spotlight, though not for ways that he’d probably care to be remembered.
That these giants of their fields are barely remembered today and will certainly be forgotten in the future is sobering for those of us whose accomplishments extend as far as a framed tertiary degree in our parents’ lounge rooms or for the slightly more accomplished, your name on your high school honour board. Surely that guarantees you immortality, right? Alas not; that board, which is made of timber, will come down in a couple of decades, if not earlier, but the fact you topped physics will likely have been forgotten well before that.
What about the great sportsmen and women of our times? Their records will surely cement their place in history; your Jordans, Babe Ruths, Sir Donald Bradmans et al. It’s possible, though, given organised sport is only around 150 years old, 170 years at most, you do have to wonder if the stars of today will figure in the public imagination in two or three hundred years’ time. As I said, there’s a chance—I don’t think Bradman’s average will ever be topped. But there’s also the possibility that sport itself will have been superseded by a more advanced opiate of the masses or that robots or algorithms will compete for our entertainment, or even that human athletes will compete for the entertainment of AI overlords. The point is, regardless of who you are, your deeds, no matter how monumental they are today, are unlikely to stand the test of time.
Personally I find this rather liberating. Big picture thinking can be a useful antidote to the stresses of the day-to-day, which begin to look rather trivial in the grand cosmic show. Observing this as you bust your gut to meet a deadline for a project that might be of little consequence outside your particular vocational milieu and will mean nothing in about a month, let alone five or 50 years, can help shake some of the stress and anxiety bearing down on you by offering some much needed perspective.
The flipside is that it can easily see you slide into a nihilistic frame of mind—why am I busting my gut on this project, which will ultimately mean nothing in a month or 50 years?
There is no easy answer to this, of course, but on balance you’re probably best to focus on the positives and double down on the impossible, but still worthwhile goal, of living in the moment. It is possible to take pride in your work even if the net result or reward of the task only lasts a day or even a few hours. Living in the moment doesn’t only mean being present; it can also mean doing your best in that moment. The fruits of your labour are for others to judge, ignore and forget. If you feel satisfied with your work as you are doing it, its legacy, which is assuredly nothing, doesn’t matter. You know you did your best.
That might produce a fleeting pang of satisfaction. No, it’s not immortality, but it might be enough.