How do you want to be remembered? It’s a pertinent question as our current civilisation apparently enters its end times and the focus turns to the way each of us responds to the growing collapse. But it’s also apt, I think, at any time.
Historically, the way famous people are remembered flows from a mix of the way their deeds were perceived by those they affected, and often the controversies of their office. I keep thinking of Emperor Nero who supposedly ‘fiddled while Rome burned’. Never mind that the violin had not been invented when the great fire of Rome occurred in 64 AD; or that – as Tacitus tells us – Nero wasn’t there when the fire broke out.
Of course the claim was allegory for the fact that Nero allegedly ordered the fire to clear an area for a new palace. Or maybe not. Roman street scuttlebutt and what actually happened were two different things. We can see the same mechanism going on today through social media where flat assertions about one public figure or another become currency. It’s always happened: social media just makes it obvious. After a while, such beliefs gain a truth of their own, divorced from empirical evidence. And so Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, aka Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, has gone down in history as a corrupt, matricidal, spotty git with a neck-beard. We can be sure Nero didn’t see himself this way, of course. Apart from the neck-beard.
But what about ordinary individuals? Take my primary school teachers, for instance. I recall most of them only as brutal dispensers of pain who took pleasure from hurting the children entrusted to their care. The fact that the nastiest used to keep pointing at or touching his own trouser front, right in front of the kids he was brutalising, summed up what it was about. I’m sure this guy didn’t see himself as a sadistic bully who exploited his position as a teacher to get his disturbing power jollies at the expense of those entrusted to his care. But that’s how he will be remembered. And not just by me; I still have friends from that era who recall the same thing.
All this adds up to one thing; some people cannot escape their prominence of place. But most people earn the way they are remembered at far smaller scale, by what they usually do to those around them.
There’s a point to this, of course. When I look around me at the hatred pouring out in social media, at the wish-fulfilment fantasies about the pandemic, at the way two generations of ‘me first’ thinking at the hands of neo-liberalism has normalised selfishness, I can’t help thinking that kindness has been forgotten. And it will be all too easy for later generations to remember this one in ways that aren’t exactly complementary.
But it’s within everybody’s power, today, to show otherwise.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020