“I’m an atheist. But I want to leave a legacy. I want my life to leave an impression, an impact, on others after I die.” That’s what one of my young philosophy students told me after class. I told her, “You won’t.” And, by the way, I won’t either. Irregardless of which is true, on neither theism nor atheism will personal legacies be made.
When you die the world will not stand up and take notice. The event of your expiration will go unattended to, except for a few people who will be the equivalent of, perhaps, a hundred grains of sand on the entire Pacific coast shoreline. Out of those hundred grains of sand most will quickly leave your memory behind as they discuss the fried chicken and potato salad at your funeral luncheon.
What about your family? If you were married and your marriage was a good one, your surviving spouse will grieve your loss. The better your marriage was, the easier they will move on without you. If your marriage was lousy, they will lie awake at night filled with the bitterness of unfinished business, words of love never said, pain inflicted and suffered. At times they may wish they could forget you, but they cannot, and the thought occasionally comes to them that they wasted a lot of years being married to you.
The same goes, I suggest, for the children. Before he died my father told me he loved me, and he blessed me with these words: “John, you’ve done well.” My father’s blessing has helped me go on without him. I now think of him, and my mother, occasionally and unpredictably, and I feel thankful for the life and care they gave me.
“But what if I become Michael Jackson? Then, surely, I will be remembered?”
I answer this: “You won’t (become ‘Michael Jackson’).” “You won’t (be remembered personally, and not for very long).” Upon your immediate death your music would be revived and a small group of people will pay to see your your memorabilia. But people will not remember you precisely because they did not know you. And, in this case, you did not even know you, at least as far as we can tell (which isn’t very far). In your death you can rest assured that, even if your post-mortem star briefly shines bright, it’s glory will certainly fade.
I suggest that there is one difference here between theism and atheism worth noting. I explained it to my student in this way. Several years ago I was the speaker at a conference that was held in a retreat center on the Atlantic shoreline. It was winter, and during a long break I walked north on the beach for at least a mile. I don’t often get to see the ocean, and it was my delight to take this walk. It was bitter cold. There was a strong wind blowing, and the waves were surfable. No one else walked the beach that day so when I turned back to the south I saw that the footprints that I had just made were fast-disappearing, and finally gone. “That,” I thought, “is how my life shall be.” So much for any personal legacy. But, I thought, for the theist, the point of this life was never meant to be about personal legacies. If, through my life, the imprint of God is made on people’s lives, then I could not be more pleased.
I’m certain every atheist is not obsessed with leaving their mark on the world. But, sans God, that’s all they have. And that will be microscopic and come to nothing.
I like what Thomas Merton wrote, in closing his autobiography The Seven-Storey Mountain
. He writes: “And when you have been praised a little and loved a little, I will take away all your gifts and all your love and all your praise and you will be utterly forgotten and abandoned and you will be nothing, a dead thing, a rejection. And in that day you shall begin to possess the solitude you have so long desired. And your solitude will bear immense fruit in the souls of men you will never see on earth.”
That is something my soul can rest in.