‘You need to think about your legacy.’

Although I have moved many calls to the bar, only a few stay in touch after they are called. That is perfectly fine. I understand that to be the nature of the job.

I am, after all, called for the sole purpose of being a midwife to the birth of a new lawyer. After the birth of a child, a mother rarely ends up best of friends with the midwife.

It is the same with calls to the bar between freshly hewn lawyer and an aging but well mover, except without the blood, green poop, umbilical cords and like being involved. We usually part ways after the obligatory call day picture. We may or may not meet after that.

There are two exceptions to that.

The first is me desiring to move a particular pupil’s call. This is extremely rare. In my entire experience of moving calls, there was only one person that moved me to insist upon it. It was only natural we would continue to keep in touch. We had a great relationship with each other before the call and continued to have one after.

The second is if the pupil themselves came back repeatedly to me for advice, a chat, or catch-up after the call. This is not common but it happens from time to time. I don’t push for it. If it happens, it happens. And it has to happen naturally. It’s nice when it does happen. There’s that sense of serendipity about it.

Long (not his real name) came from the second exception.

Shortly after his call, he sought me out for advice about his work and career. From time to time he would drop by and pay me a visit. We have kept in touch for more than half a decade since his call. It is always a pleasure to catch up with him when he drops by the office.

He is a young man with a lot of ideas. I like to listen to ideas, especially from the young; they have fewer constraints about them. It’s also of interest to know what’s coming. Our talk often tended towards the business aspect of legal practice than the law itself.

However, on the last occasion together last year, after some catching up, he broached a topic he never traversed before.

“Sir, have you thought about your legacy? You know, how you want people to remember you?” he asked.

I gazed into the sky searchingly. The white clouds streaked across the azure sky like heavy skidmarks before fragmenting into little wisps of smoke in the distance. I turned to him and pointed to myself with the ends of both my hands.

“You talking to me?”

He chuckled. “I’m serious, sir. You should, you know. You need to think about your legacy,” he said, his face radiating earnestness.

When I considered it, I had a healthy laugh about it. I saw his look of puzzlement as I tried to wind my laughing down as quickly as possible. I felt bad for doing so since he was genuine about it.

“Thank you, Long, for asking. I’m flattered. But you know, the way I see it is I am just a middle-aged lawyer practicing in a little law firm in a shophouse somewhere in PJ. I get by. I have my bit of fun. But I’m not Najib rich. I am not part of a political family dynasty. My family is not royalty. I have not done anything great for the country. There are more well-known, well-connected, well-liked lawyers around. I’m a nobody. And to be honest, I don’t think it’s within my control how I want people to remember me. I can do all the good in the world but if people want to believe what’s convenient to them, what to do?”

“Ah, sir, you are too modest as to be unfair to yourself. You speak as if you have accomplished nothing but you have. You have a good reputation. You are known for the right reasons. That is something. I heard of you even before I was a pupil. You are often interviewed and featured in the media and involved in high-profile public interest cases. You have written an advocacy book. Ha, I am embarrassed to say, I haven’t finished it yet. I plan to soon. Oh and, sir, can you please sign it for me later? I brought it with me.”

“Of course. Of course.”

“Thank you, sir. As I was saying, you are known…”

“Okay, Long. Okay. I know where you are going. Suppose you are right in what you say. I still think it is trying to make too much from too little. There are other lawyers far better than myself. I just hope it’s a few instead of many. But, Long, thank you for thinking well of me.”

“I understand how you think about it, sir. I won’t raise it anymore but I have to tell you this. Please think about it, sir. You may dismiss it today, but consider it another day.”

I told him I would. With that, we moved to discuss our usual matters.

As promised, I did give the idea some thought. A few times, at least.

Having done so, I believe my initial instinct to be correct i.e. I don’t think it’s within my control to impose on others how I want to be remembered after I am dead. There is for one, the problem of enforcement. I don’t believe in ghosts, so I won’t be around to haunt them.

More realistically, more famous, powerful, rich, cleverer, and influential than myself have been forgotten to the ages. Some built monuments, left foundations, established schools, charities, and so on. Few remember them now. The information may be stored on Google but we don’t remember them. Storage is not remembrance. Many of our and the younger generations don’t know who these people were.

What is more, these days our daily struggles are so thick with work, hustling, rest, family, friends, our own pursuits. Unless we consciously and deliberately make time for it, it is easy for the departed to fade into the blur of daily existence. What more in this digitized, remote, networked and data-driven environment where a flood of information is generated and published every day. The departed are lost in a welter of data.

So who the hell am I, someone with zero influence on the course of national matters, nevermind world events or humankind, to escape the oblivion of being forgotten, to leave ‘a legacy’? In any event, in the long run, none of this matters. Current science theorizes that in a few billion years when our sun goes through the process of star death, it will vaporize the earth, killing everything on it. So even if our legacies lasts a couple of billion years, we would all be dead by then anyway.

Whatever is made by humankind goes the way of humankind, the memory of us too will fade from existence after we are gone. By what right do I or anyone have to demand of those coming after us to be remembered by them? What great debt do they owe us to carry such a heavy burden in the discharge of their debt? There is no right or debt.

And after I am dead, none of it will matter anymore, to me anyway.

I think there are two kinds of legacies.

The one we intend and the one we don’t.

Thus far I have been discussing the legacy we would like to leave others with.

There is also the legacy we do not intend.

I think this the real ‘legacy’. It is similar to the idea of reputation that I describe in my earlier essay Branding and Reputation. The quality of this legacy depends on the quality of other people’s experience of us or with us – directly or vicariously. Our legacy is the accumulation of everyone’s experience and memory of the experience of us.

How we treat others and how we let others treat us – that is the legacy we leave. How we made others, for a moment, feel, think, experience and believe – that is all that is left of us when we are gone (aside from children, if we have any). How others choose to remember us – that is the only legacy we can have.

And how we are remembered is directly related to our treatment of those we engaged with when we were alive – Were we kind or cruel? Were we generous or stingy? Were we honest in our dealings or were we cheating scumbags? Were we empathetic or schadenfreude? Did we stand up for what was right or did we succumb to wrong? Were we courageous or did we act cowardly?

How we answer all these questions and more during our lifetime in action is the sum of our legacy. A legacy is not built by accumulation, but by distribution. It is built on the giving of ourselves, not the taking for ourselves. If a legacy is something beyond us, then it must comprise of moments where we went beyond ourselves.

A legacy is ultimately what others remember about us, what they say of us; not what we say about ourselves. I always recall Maya Angelou’s words that people don’t remember what we said or what we did but they remember how we made them feel. So our legacy when we boil it down is how we made others feel when we were alive.

This is about all I care to contemplate about legacies or ‘my legacy’. I don’t think it’s worth spending too much time thinking what happens after. Like the forgotten billions that came before us too, we will be forgotten in time. Facts are facts.

For myself, I think my time is better spent using my limited living and waking hours enjoying myself with the people I love and like to live, work and make merry with now. What is said of me later is not within my control and so not worth getting worked up about.

No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.

Seneca

Leave a Comment