How do you want to be remembered?

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.

Bust of Nero, complete with neck-beard. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

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.

The New Zealand school system in action, circa 1970s…

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

8 thoughts on “How do you want to be remembered?

  1. An interesting piece. I think we all want the same things, peace and prosperity, and therefore, that all the world’s problems must be a failure of communication. The internet is certainly a mixed blessing.

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    1. I’m inclined to agree. I think that a failure to communicate is also ‘intentional’ in the sense that people seem to find allegiance to each other in small groups – who become ‘us’. In this mind-set, other groups are defined as ‘them’, in what is usually played as a zero-sum game. In this mind-set, ‘we’ want peace and prosperity, but for ‘us’ to get it, ‘they’ have to be denied it. To me, a lot of what I see in social media can be explained that way; modern communication brings ‘us’ together efficiently, but it also exposes ‘us’ to ‘them’. I suspect it is hard-wired into humanity as an outcome of hunter-gatherer evolution, where group sizes were small(ish) and groups competed between each other for resources.

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      1. Exactly, that competitive element. Please don’t let it be hard-wired! Cooperation is everywhere – especially in music, the arts.


        1. I’m not sure about the arts. I work full time as a historian and author, and although I’ve got good friends in the field, for the most part it’s characterised by a dog-eat-dog sense of anger in which I frequently find myself the target of what appears to be psychotic hatred from total strangers working in the same territory. There’s one guy – a professor, no less – who introduced himself to me via an abusive ‘book review’ which was sufficiently egregious I had it read for defamation. This same guy continues to run down and abuse my work to this day, even recommending to his students that they should not use my material. He has never had the personal integrity to introduce himself to me, doesn’t respond to approaches and, it seems, cannot be reasoned with. This isn’t isolated, nor am I the only one to have to put up with this kind of conduct.


  2. This ‘normalised selfishness’. Yes. And yet, in the midst of all this feral self-centredness, there are individuals who go out of there way to do something nice. Just because they can. If I were into selective breeding, they’re the ones I’d put on the Ark. The rest can grow gills and fins, or not, as the case may be.

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    1. It’s always interested me how society seems to cultivate one or another aspect of human nature. During the years after the Napoleonic Wars, and again during the years after the two World Wars of the twentieth century, there was more a sense of shared community, of people being together. That disappeared in the face of Reaganomics and Thatcherism – and after two generations of the feral self-centredness that the neo-liberal approach cultivated in society (a term I very much like – thank you!) – the darker side of humanity predominates. Ouch. I’m not sure it can be selected out of humanity: I think it’s innate in all of us. And it’s easy, I think, for people to fall for their darker side, because it gratifies personal immediate wants. The problem humanity faces is that the harder task – being kind to each other – is the more crucial and necessary.

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      1. You’re welcome. 🙂
        I see individuals and society as being in a constant power struggle. We seem to do best when the two are in some sort of balance. At the moment, self-centredness is either rewarded, or has very little in the way of negative consequences. But the pendulum will swing back in the opposite direction eventually. Then it will no longer pay to ‘act’ self-centred, so people will start behaving well again, even if they don’t want to.
        Would be really nice if that pendulum would just hang around in the middle for a while because the opposite extreme ain’t much fun either.

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