SUNDAY, 20 FEBRUARY 2000
Tradition was a hallmark of the high school where I spent my teenage years. And as it befits a school priding themselves on tradition, photographs of six decades of first rugby teams hung in a place where every young boy would be confronted with the possibility of his own face against that same wall. Sometimes, if you were curious enough and you had time, you could pause for a few minutes at a photo to put names to faces. If one had this opportunity, you’d notice a strange term appearing here and there, among all the John Steyns and Louis Bothas: “Another One”. I could never figure out how it could happen that the names of these guys were somehow forgotten, for they must surely have had names! This notion that not everyone was remembered, stuck with me.
A person is born, and as time goes by, he begins to discover the world he lives in. He starts learning how things work, what he must do to survive, what he shouldn’t do to stay out of trouble, and what is generally expected of him. Eventually this person realizes that everyone is, to some degree, like him; as he is, to some extent, like everyone else. Everybody eats, wears clothes, brushes teeth, gets angry sometimes, laughs and speaks in languages that most people in the vicinity understand. He realizes if he wants to survive and stay out of trouble he should follow the example set by others. He should fit in with his surroundings. He must try to be like other people who are part of his world.
As life is, at some point he also becomes acquainted with the phenomenon that people die. He sees, and possibly experiences, the great grief: people crying, and an atmosphere that hangs over the house that he has never before encountered. This young person can certainly not be blamed if he thinks this is how things are going to be from now on – a member of the family has died, and no one will ever see him or her again. But, the weeks and months pass, and he realizes that his mother and father have again started laughing every time the dog does something funny, and the lawn still gets mowed every other Saturday. The life of this youngster also continues in a way similar to his life before the Big Event.
These occurrences make a deep impression on the young child: Someone who had always been there, was one day no longer there, and life continued.
The same thing might happen again – this time a grandmother or grandfather or an uncle or aunt, perhaps even someone who had been running around on the playground with him the other day. The same drama plays itself out again: people cry, whispered conversations, and the silence that muffles even the dog’s barking. But once again it does not escape the child’s attention that the adults still go to work every day and every evening the family still eats dinner – just like before.
The impression that people die and that the world continues without them – like a train that offloads passengers before continuing its journey – is entrenched in this youngster’s mind.
At this point, it’s only a matter of time before the child realizes that he, too, will someday not be here anymore. And as with all the others who have died, the world will also continue without him. Then, too, someone will read the news on TV, someone will crack a joke somewhere, and all the dogs in the neighbourhood will continue barking at anything that moves during the night.
As the child grows older, he’s also exposed to the names of people long dead, but for some reason remembered. In one community, it’s Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.; in another, Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe; and in yet another part of the world, Bruce Lee or Mao Zedong. The child realizes that there are some people who didn’t just die to be forgotten after a while. He realizes some people do things during their lifetime that causes them to be remembered. They’re remembered in school books, in magazines, in newspapers and on TV. Perhaps they’re preached about Sunday in church. Someone might talk about them on TV or around a campfire. And he may read in a magazine how people still celebrate their favourite singer’s birthday decades after his death.
The child looks at himself and at those around him, and the time comes when he wonders where he fits into this Hierarchy of the Remembered. Will his face someday appear on stamps? Will people still remember his birthday, years after he had died? Will his name still be mentioned in the occasional conversation?
The average person knows he or she is important to a small group of people. They know the woman who reads the news on TV won’t shed any tears when they die, but their parents and siblings will certainly be sad for at least a few months. For some people that is enough – to know they will be remembered by a small but significant group of people. Others hope at least a few hundred people will one day pitch up at their farewell party. And then there are people who won’t lost any time thinking about these things, but whose funeral will bring an entire city – even an entire nation – to a standstill.
On one side of the spectrum, we have the man who was a capable leader, perhaps the hero of a political revolution, whose ideas will still be studied centuries after his physical demise. This man may have co-produced a few children who may have given him many grandchildren and great grandchildren. The man on this side of the spectrum may die at an old age surrounded by his large family. His ideas and his well-documented words and deeds will live on in institutions, libraries, and as part of people’s general knowledge. On the other side of the spectrum we have a man who had no brothers or sisters, he never married, never had any children and not many people called him a friend. He never wrote any books, never produced any musical hits, never built anything, and never designed or invented anything that would still be useful long after his death.
The one person’s name will live on. He will be remembered. The other guy will be remembered as … just another one. People would later refer to him as the one who worked in Capacity X in Office Y, or as the man who lived in the Red House. Ten years after his death not many people will still remember his name.
Many of us cherish a desire to be remembered for things that we value. But is this anything more than a quest to feel good about ourselves? Some would say it is precisely this desire that drives humans to do things never done before, or to accomplish something that requires a lot of hard work and dedication – something that will ultimately have value for more people than just a single individual wanting to feel good about him- or herself.
What is it that makes people seek recognition? Why do people hope to be remembered long after their seats on the train had become cold?
Whatever it is, it drives people forward. It drives them to break new ground, and sometimes to give hope when others need it most. It motivates people to acquire skills that put them in unique positions; to improve their own lives and perhaps also the lives of everyone around them, as well as those who will come after them. Unfortunately, this quest for recognition is also the fire that drives people to unleash wars, and to destroy rather than to build.
Let there be consensus: let those who deserve it, be rewarded with a postage stamp after their death, and let their birthdays be remembered. And let the names of those who seek fame in destructive ways (and in some tragic cases find it) be remembered as the result of the dark side that sometimes overwhelm the light.
Shall we say seeking recognition is a good thing then, as long as it produces a mostly positive legacy? To thus be remembered for a good contribution – whether a heroic deed or a life of devotion to a good cause.
Each one of us is ultimately confronted with questions: Where in this Hierarchy of Being Remembered do you fit in? Where do you want to fit in? And finally, for what do you want to be remembered?