Living With Style
Every preacher has experienced the unpredictability of what strikes the listeners’ imagination and eventually remains with them after the sermon is ended. Ideas for which he has laboured for hours go unnoticed while images or sentences that were supposed to be mere transitions or were uttered almost by accident remain with the listeners and keep resonating in their memories for a long time, sometimes their whole life. This comes to my mind when I try to think about legacy.
We are in the period of the year in which we dare to direct our collective attention on a reality which we choose to ignore during most of our existence. The shedding of leaves, the shortening of daylight, the lowering of temperature remind us that dying is an essential part of the cycle of life. Similarly, we experience the solemn beauty of times of silence during our ceremonies of remembrance in our streets and in our churches. What goes through our heads during these times is irrelevant. What matters is that we pause and even just for a little moment stop pretending that by keeping ourselves busy we can elude the final silencing, the moment when we will not be able to add any more word to our speeches, any more justification to the narrative we constantly weave in the attempt to make sense of our lives, any more request of forgiveness for the wrong we have done to others, any more prayer to the Great Silent Other whom we might have worshipped but more likely ignored for most of our waking time.
I am always slightly annoyed when the audience erupts in hasty applause right at the end of a musical piece. Music directors often prevent this from happening by holding their final posture for few seconds after the notes have ended. This suspension, these few seconds of silence, are just as essential to the integrity of the piece as everything that has come before it. This is equally true of the silence of death, that is the moment when we have to let our life speak for itself.
We might feel threatened by being dispossessed in this way. We want to keep a control over the narrative. This is what lies behind our concern for legacy. It is not enough for us to leave a generic memory. We want to be remembered for something in particular, for the thing which matters most to us.
How disappointing then that, just as with the experience of preaching, most people pay lip service to our narrative while in fact keeping with them images, moments, sentences which we would have consider completely irrelevant in our lives or, we might say, anecdotal.
And yet, is it not precisely this what we are most fond of when we talk about people who have left us. Is it not this the decisive component of any successful biography? Anecdotes.
Legacy is anecdotal. Far from unsettling us, this thought should bring us relief. The best way of insuring a lasting legacy is not trying to control the tale of our life but rather living it to the full, being present to each of its instants, not knowing which one might play a decisive role in the memory of those whom we love or rather knowing that each one of these instants could play that role.