What's Left Behind

For lunch today, I headed over to the National Gallery of Art, which is just across the street from my workplace. I wandered down to the contemporary art exhibition that prominently showcases half a dozen murals by Mark Rothko.

Rothko died in 1970, but his paintings steeped in abstract expressionism are still found in museums worldwide. Along with the NGA in Washington, D.C., his work is located at the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim of New York City.

Despite his avant-garde talent (and perhaps because of it), Rothko suffered from depression and ended his life by slitting his wrists. Undoubtedly, the artist suffered a grisly death, but what's left behind is his art--a testament of his brilliance and a window into the world of abstract expressionist painting.

As I walked around the exhibition, I couldn't help but wonder what I will leave behind when I pass away. Will I leave behind a painting or sculpture that is displayed at a national museum? Will I leave behind a sheet of music that will be played centuries after I'm gone? Will I leave behind a few books that I've written and thus be able to communicate with the living once I pass on to the other side?

The study of history has taught me that we human beings only remember a few ancestors from our past. We remember important political figures like Alexander the Great, Elizabeth I, and Adolf Hitler--Alexander for spreading Hellenism, Elizabeth for raising England to prominence, and Hitler for his evils. We remember religious figures like Mohammed, Jesus Christ, and Siddhartha because their teachings have sculpted the world into what it is today--in both good and bad ways. We also remember great thinkers of the past like Socrates and Hobbes and Aristotle and Locke. (How often we forget that the world we live in is a direct result of the Enlightenment.) And we also remember great artists, such as Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Bernini, Picasso, and Rothko. And of course, the word 'artist' extends beyond the world of visual art; we cannot forget the novelists and architects, poets and playwrights, filmmakers and musicians.

There are others we remember, too. We have heroes to look up to like Cincinnatus who answered the call to serve Rome and then humbly returned to his farming when the battle was finished. We have traitors like Benedict Arnold who turned against his infant country to ally himself with the British. We have peacemakers like Martin Luther King, Jr., who promoted non-violence to achieve equality for all.

Yet despite such remembrance, we often forget the millions--yes, billions--of people who have also lived here on our green Earth. The two world wars are narrated with military tactics and offensive strategies, rather than with the complicated tale of men losing their lives and women left widowed. The bubonic plague that ripped apart Europe in the 14th century is taught to us in cold statistics and numbers, erasing the individual stories of each victim. Of course, no historical documentation exists to fully tell the humanistic tale of World War I or the sufferers of the bubonic plague--such a task is impossible. But isn't it a shame that we have forgotten the lives of so many of our kinsmen?

And so, perhaps I write in a journal and started this blog to create a record of my life, my thoughts, my emotions. I know that I will not leave behind a masterpiece of sculpture or a manifesto on a new political ideology. Yet I want to leave something behind. But what?

I have decided that what I want to leave behind are two things: a family and a legacy of charity. When I leave this Earth, I hope to leave behind children and grandchildren who are happy, healthy, and who strive to make this world a better place. And I also hope to look back on my life and be able to say that I did my best to help others, to serve the needy, to care for the sick, to comfort those who mourn. I may not leave something behind that will get my name in the papers, but that doesn't really matter because newspapers eventually yellow and fade. What really matters is how I live my life and whether or not I am making a difference while I am here.

So I extend this question to you: what will you leave behind? Hmmm...