I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of legacy lately; the ways we try to smear our sticky thumbprints on the ledgers of history so that something outlasts and outlives us.
For as long as there has been humanity, there has been a desire to transcend it. We can’t be sure that cavemen didn’t scratch their carvings into walls just for decorative purposes, just like we can’t be sure whether Van Gogh smeared oil on canvas specifically to keep bringing lumps to the throats of people long after he couldn't see it for himself. We plug in our headphones to goosebump as the doomed lungs of dead musicians croon us a chorus, and we know it’s not logical but dammit, it feels like they’re speaking directly to us, doesn’t it?
And it makes me wonder how much our fear of death influences the actions we take in life.
If asked, most people I talk to say that they couldn’t bear to be immortal, to watch their loved ones be born and live and die, over and over again. Me? I’m not so sentimental. Or maybe too much so. Whichever it is, I can become smitten with a thousand different faces and chase their stories like a bloodhound on the scent of a rabbit. If I was doomed to outlive everyone I'd ever cared about, I doubt I could forget those I’ve lost, but I'd still find ways to embrace new challenges and new friends from it.
Then again, I may just have that rationale because I’m scared of death. Quite scared, as it goes.
I didn’t used to be. It was an abstract concept; “Things to do before I die” with the word ‘die’ in a whisper. But then people I loved started flickering out like candles in a drafty corridor and suddenly the realisation that I might not have the luxury of a long life began to calcify in the back of my mind. It only became conscious recently, but it had been germinating in the grey matter for who knows how long before.
It started with a novel. I’d been a scribbling, scapping kid from my earliest years and I’d journeyed with my friends etched in fiction for so long, I wanted to contribute to their world. I took the plunge as an adult after losing the thread partway through a Young Adult trilogy I’d begun in my teens that, sadly, is lost on an old hard drive somewhere unknown to me.
But this wasn’t me writing about my friends and our adolescent drama, this was a proper novel. I didn’t just want it to be good: I wanted it to be cataclysmic. I wanted to be capable of writing something that changed the face of literature and shook university English professors by the lapel, spitting frothily into their faces, “But do you get it?!” It’s always been my way to start by dreaming big and then paring it down to reality, and this was no exception.
I was twenty-one years old when I finished my first book, Softly Screamed the Devil. While it had a lot of heart, the execution left much to be desired. Regardless, I pressed on with writing because I knew it would hurt me more to stop than to keep going. A novel a year, more or less, as I learned to prune and pluck my style into the truest expression of myself. And yet to this day, very few people have ever read my manuscripts.
Why labour painstakingly for hundreds or even thousands of hours, to cultivate something from the ether… only to bury it in some folder on my computer or stash in hard copy on the bottom floor of my chest of drawers?
For the same reason I wrote, of course. I’d worked so hard to create something that would outlive me, but it wasn’t yet right; not perfect. And if sloppy craftsmanship with my name attached went out into the world, so much the quicker that both of us could be dismissed forever.
A book is so easy to skim and then discard. A legacy in written by oneself ink is not as potent as a legacy scribed by others in legend. I think I must have known this, somewhere deep down, when I finally slipped from being a person with a job to a person with a career.
The International Development sector fascinates me endlessly; we work so hard to combat abstract concepts of human suffering such as female genital mutilation, human trafficking, and famine, all for the benefit of people we will never meet. Altruism comprises a significant part – those who know me are equal parts unsurprised that my bleeding heart has found a place to outpour its tenderness and amused that my cynicism can bear to navigate bureaucracies like the United Nations and the World Health Organisation to do so – but a sector fed on selflessness alone wouldn’t be a sustainable one. Ergo, there are other factors at play.
Loving what I do in my day-to-day work has always been a huge driving principle of my (until recently) shrug-emoji career aspirations. But as I’ve found my groove in the work I do, I’m recognising the things I need to create, and fuel, endless drive: room to grow professionally, autonomy to make decisions, and scope to work with and for the interests of numerous parties being chief amongst them.
International Development is full of people with equal and greater passion to mine. These people live and breathe their metrics of impact and grind away for decades in academic study and professional development, spurred by a burning hunger to leave even the smallest dent in their area of expertise. And I’ve also met people who spruik lives saved with the same lacklustre indifference of an insurance salesperson without a quota; people who are simply happy to have the place of their employment – a label of audacious idealism – written on their resumé without any follow-through. I don’t ask them why. It would be arrogant to assume that I am the only one whose drive is motivated by ways to leave something behind. Then again, it might be petulant to assume I'm not.
It comes back to the old conversations we have about marriage and family and children, doesn’t it? How people navigate the complexity of whether someone is compatible enough with them to share an intertwined generation, and whether that bond can endure a nonbiological connection (adoption, fostering) if conception proves impossible.
With millions of children around the world in desperate need of a home, I often wonder why for some people it’s a carte blanche, “I want my child to be biologically mine”, while others collect foster kids like Pokémon cards.
Sure, the simple answer is that humans are complicated beings. I’m not disputing that. But I wonder how much, if anything, a fear of death influences our more passive worldviews. Whether we need the child who outlives us to contain those nuggets of our DNA before we are willing to accept whatever comes after, or whether the gaggle of children who, at one time or other, are housed beneath our roofs are expected to go on and spread the gospel of the guardians who did them such kindness?
It might seem a pessimistic train of thought, but honestly, I feel nothing but compassion for these hypothetical people and their hypothetical priorities. We’re all just trying to live a life worth eulogizing before the clock hits zero. This does not make us arrogant, nor dangerous – so long as it doesn’t consume us – it’s just human. A hard-wired (possibly biological) imperative. And in a way, it’s kind of beautiful.
Two years ago, on a dry, arid day in the foothills of Shan State, Myanmar, I truly believed that I was about to die. What astonished me was not the revelation itself, but how quickly – and I mean quickly – I made peace with it. Even as my heart rattled against my sternum as if trying to break free and save itself at the expense of me, I thought with a dry amusement that this was perfectly appropriate of the life I wanted to live: mysterious circumstances, a foreign country, and insurgents in the area – a perfect storm for a diplomatic scandal.
At the risk of spoiling this story, I did not die that day. But the calm of my resignation stayed with me for another year, at least. Only recently did I realise that it had faded, when I also noticed that I’ve reverted to working myself to the bone in my fickle pursuit of immortality.
So I’m doing it right, this time.
I’ve come back to Softly Screamed the Devil in the last few months. Five years leaves a lot of time for your skill to grow and your heavy-handed use of five-dollar words to diminish. But the book still has heart in a way that makes me feel forgiving of my past, car crash-clattering-keyboard bandit self. This book may not be taught in high school English classes, but now that the world has become bigger and more vibrant to me, I don’t think that’s ever really what I wanted. I just wanted somebody I’d never met to see my name on a book sleeve and feel a frisson of anticipatory excitement, of, “What’s she written now?”
By the year’s end, I hope I will have found time in my busy schedule to have completed these edits until it is in a good enough shape for me to start feeding to those closest to me for feedback – the real kind, where the jugular sits just below the skin. By then, I will ideally have finished slapping together the resilience I need to handle the criticism it will undoubtedly incur, and grow from it.
I’m measuring the way I leave my mark on the world differently; through friends made, conversations that linger, and lives made better through my love, advice, honesty, or sympathetic ear. It’s liberating because it gives me permission to be mediocre, if mediocrity is in store for me. Maybe one day, I’ll accept that my name will mostly likely be lost in the wash of history. The world is interconnected enough for that to even be appealing, with some rationalisation – after all, for every person immortalised, there is a contrarian objector to everything they stand for. I’ve always been a person who prefers to hit 80% of the specs on the first attempt than exhaust myself in building up to an even hundred; I don’t have the energy to defend a legacy from the grave. It's not like I'll be around to glean any satisfaction from it, anyway.
But it’s nice to imagine that at least for the lifetimes of those who love (or, one day, have loved) me, I might be remembered. After all, what do we live for if not for the lives we’ve changed, we’ve made, we’ve moved?
Do you want to know my biggest secret? It might sound silly, but I've always fantasised about walking into my own surprise party. I want to know how the sensory overload feels when a sea of my friends and family convene in secret, just to blindside me with the knowledge that I am worth suffering bitten tongues and anxiety-inducing covert planning just to gift me that pure, euphoric moment. I can imagine no more perfect way to look foolish, nor to feel loved.
If only there was a way to know if that's what death feels like. If it was, maybe I’d stop living like I’m trying to beat the devil.
But maybe I wouldn’t.
That’s what makes it fun.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.