lifetime and legacy

The first person I knew who died was my grandfather.

His name was Alf, but all I remember of him was his face and his laugh – a high, joyful, wheezy chuckle – and that he and my Grandmother used to call each other ‘mate’. “Put the kettle on, mate,” they’d say to each other.

I don’t know why they called each other that, but it was very deeply affectionate. It always sounded friendlier than any stock affective term like ‘darling’ or ‘honey’. Like their love had genuinely been built on being best mates.

In fact, the two of them had been star-crossed young lovers in Liverpool (he was Protestant, she was Catholic – which mattered in the 30s) and both their families threw them out. After the war they worked in factories for the rest of their working lives, and were devoted to each other until he died.

And when he died, in 1989, I was given a watch.

It’s a nice ornate kind of thing, with a classic-looking face and a leather strap. It was engraved “Duncan, from Grandad” – but I’ve always known it wasn’t really from him. To begin with, it was a brand new watch so it must have been bought specially for me when he died; and by the time he was dying his Alzheimer’s had reached the point where he wouldn’t exactly have been able to go shopping for watches himself.

But that doesn’t make it of any less value; it must have been bought by my mother and/or my grandmother, who must have decided that he would have wanted me to have something like that. So it’s from them, really.

But it’s also from him. Kind of. I guess in a way, it’s from all of them.

I think it is very beautiful.

The problem with death is that nobody ever thinks enough about it until they’re faced with it – then it takes them by surprise.

They organise their lives, plan parties, clean the kitchen, complain about the government, and generally go on as if the whole thing will never stop, and then one day they’re hit by a bus, or Alzheimers, or a stroke or whatever and it’s all over. Like that.

According to Alice Osborne, the founder of a project called the Legacy Centre, the number of people leaving wills has dropped dramatically in recent years. The centre is being set up to challenge the taboo of talking about dying; as a comedian and a philosopher, this is obviously something of which I very strongly approve.

People just don’t like talking about death. It’s a big empty amorphous monster that’s out to get us, all of us, and we don’t talk about it. When it happens to one of us, we treat it with the utmost solemnity, and until then we try not to think about it.

On the upside, this allows us to keep thinking we’re immortal, and putting things off (it also means a lot of money goes to the exchequer when we die without leaving wills). The downside is that this does sometimes leave people in a mess when they are dependent on someone who dies without providing for them.

But the biggest problem with not talking about death is not to do with our unpreparedness for death itself, or what what will happen to our things after we die. The bigger problem is a failure to face what death means for us while we are still alive. I think a lot of people have the power to do more with their resources – and not just their material resources – while they are still alive. But they don’t.

Martin Heidegger was obsessed with death. The limitedness of life, he thought, must be faced honestly if we are to make the best of it. An authentic state of “being-towards-death”, he thought, throws all our projects into sharp contrast with the fact that we have a very limited amount of time in which to make those projects happen.

At first, he said, really fully comprehending the fact of your own death makes everything you do appear meaningless; we feel a state of terrible anxiety about it.

But once we’ve come to terms with it, it imbues everything we do with meaning. Life is limited: it happens in a certain period of time, and we have to act on the things we care about, decisively, before time runs out, to make life meaningful.

This is an oversimplification of Heidegger’s point, of course. But that’s okay – it’s a fairly simple point which I think is best made bluntly: what gives life meaning is the things which are important to us before we die – in other words, in our lifetime.

In some ways, it’s banal, which is why it’s such a wonder that so few people really spend much time thinking about it. But your achievements and your goals do matter, to the extent that they matter to you in the limited time of your life.

And most of all, I think – although this is my emphasis rather than Heidegger’s – it is the people who are important to your life, and the time spent with them, which matter. Bearing in mind that in a few years, or a few months, or a few days even, you or they could be gone.

Heidegger gave that state of mind a name which, when translated into English, seems underwhelming. He called it care.

But Heidegger also pointed out that in the process of caring about things, many of us lose sight of how real our limitedness is, with death always on the horizon. We think we’re safe, get sidetracked by novelties, new things and insignificant people, and lose what it is about ourselves which is authentic.

If we do think about death at all, we think of how to survive it in some way, through our ‘legacy’. We think of the practical side of the fact that our physical body will no longer be able to move around and act on the world. So we make wills, set things in order, leave inheritances. We set up what we would like to see happen, almost as if we were actually going to get to stay and observe it; it’s almost as if are just planning to go away for a bit.

And what we forget about is that the most important legacy a person can leave is the memory of their life.

It’s possible – as I have learned, to my very great regret – to be too obsessed with death. Or at least, to make the mistake of thinking that the inevitability of death means we must get the most out of life. I have certainly made decisions based on thoughts which have taken the form, “I am going to die without ever experiencing x – therefore I will need to experience x.

This can be a mistake. It’s true that we must act now, because time is short; but the quest to beat death should not take the form of a checklist. Giving meaning to life has to be deeper – and in fact, much happier and more cheerful – than ticking off a bucket list of fleeting experiences.

It’s about committing yourself to completing the projects that really mean something to you, however challenging they seem; it’s about openly and cheerfully loving those people who you love, whether or not they understand that this is what will have defined your life; it is about being the person you are.

While a person is alive, they cannot get happiness by chasing transitory experiences until those experiences can no longer be chased. And after a person is gone, their life cannot be valued from having completed a list.

By then, your life has its value in the memories of people who knew you and loved you – or who hardly had a chance to know you, remembering your wheezy laugh, and the fact that you called your wife ‘mate’, and, most importantly, the fact that you loved them.

The watch I was given when my grandfather died isn’t very reliable. It keeps stopping. As a timepiece, it is entirely useless.

Still, I treasure it and I wear it every day. Because it isn’t a timepiece in the sense that it tells me the time; it’s a constant reminder of the limitedness of time – and the love that is possible within it.

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