Regarding Oblivion: Why We Needn’t Fear Of Being Forgotten

My first blog post, and it’s long and unre­fined. This post man­i­fest­ed from a beau­ti­ful con­ver­sa­tion I’ve recent­ly had with a friend. Brace your­selves!

Throughout my life, I’ve met many peo­ple who dream of being rich and famous — and it’s a no-brain­er that almost every­one wants to be rich and famous. Many of them have their dif­fer­ent rea­sons behind these wants. A lot of them, like Kevin MacLeod, mere­ly want to be rec­og­nized for the beau­ti­ful works they do. Many also seem to want a life of lux­u­ry, where their need of com­fort (we could debate if such an art is soul­less, but that’s for anoth­er top­ic) is what dri­ves their art. Many oth­ers want to sim­ply “fol­low the social lad­der” of pop­u­lar­i­ty as the norms have encour­aged.

And some are sim­ply afraid of obliv­ion.

As a friend once told me, after agony that enables the cre­ation of life from noth­ing­ness — a babe in arms of its moth­er — there is noth­ing scari­er and more painful than return­ing to that noth­ing­ness.

We’ve feared death for such rea­sons, that this one life we have could essen­tial­ly stop to exist, and this con­scious­ness that gives us the abil­i­ty to sense and com­mit to actions may essen­tial­ly “stop work­ing” and there­fore every­thing would have gone beyond your con­trol.

However, our per­son­al needs are usu­al­ly out­weighed by the needs of the soci­ety — a col­lec­tive iden­ti­ty — for sus­tain­ment and growth, even though the human indi­vid­ual is most­ly self-serv­ing, liv­ing in ego-cen­tric per­cep­tions.

In order to sat­is­fy both ends, most cul­tures man­u­fac­ture sto­ries of heroes or spe­cial indi­vid­u­als that are unlike any oth­ers in that sto­ry, and these heroes have a duty to hold the world in bal­ance upon their own shoul­ders so they would be remem­bered for it. While the sto­ries were meant to inspire peo­ple, they may have also large­ly mis­guid­ed the mass­es. For one thing, the “hero” is often designed to be some­one the read­er / audi­ence can project them­selves into, and the prob­lem is that the sto­ry con­vinces the read­ers / audi­ences that the hero is “unlike any oth­er” in the sto­ry, that none hold the great respon­si­bil­i­ties as they do. The read­ers essen­tial­ly become cap­ti­vat­ed with that idea sub­con­scious­ly, real­iz­ing their own duties towards the soci­ety. The prob­lem is, there are no pro­tag­o­nists in life.

This might just be doing more harm than good, espe­cial­ly with the cul­tures’ promis­es that the efforts could be paid of with great suc­cess, fame and for­tune, immor­tal­ized by world for their con­tri­bu­tion. In a cul­ture of mil­lions these days, it’s impos­si­ble to sat­is­fy each one of them in the idea pro­ject­ed. The read­ers are intel­li­gent enough to know this, but even so, the prim­i­tive sys­tem of thought (which is now encour­aged today by pop media) still embeds itself into the col­lec­tive mind, with an idea that some­how being rich and famous is para­mount, and there­fore defines life’s suc­cess.

Does being rich and famous real­ly lead to sat­is­fac­tion in life? In a way, yes and no. Wealth pro­vides agency, and fame pro­vides mar­ket, which in turn aids in suc­cess. However, nei­ther of them are the fun­da­men­tal “cause” of any con­tri­bu­tions towards the soci­ety, and that fun­da­men­tal dri­ving force (or vision) can exist regard­less of fame and for­tune. Donald Trump is rich and famous, but is not known to con­tribute to the world in any mean­ing­ful way. But Bill Gates is cer­tain­ly known to not only have invent­ed one of the most used oper­at­ing sys­tems on the plan­et, but also for sav­ing lives. It seems like most of those who did become rich and famous as mean­ing­ful con­trib­u­tors were mere­ly focused on the work they would like to con­tribute to world. And some, like Edgar Allan Poe and Van Gogh, were left by the road-side until after their deaths.

So where does this dis­crim­i­na­tion of fame come from? Where are the oppor­tu­ni­ties that our cul­tures have promised us?

Let me shock you out of this with one ques­tion. There are count­less NGOs in innu­mer­able areas of the world. Do you remem­ber each of them, and all who head these orga­ni­za­tions?

We can’t even remem­ber our shop­ping list well enough, or the next one our To-Do list, let alone the names of so many who are chang­ing the world at every moment that we breathe right now, and all those who have done so in the past. There are so many peo­ple, and so many con­tributers to all that is good that if we were to com­pile just their names (not even their con­tri­bu­tions) our list would be longer than the Christian Bible. And this does not include all the unsung heroes in every­day life either.

The fact is that civ­i­liza­tions don’t mere­ly run on a cou­ple of shoul­ders, and is actu­al­ly an active col­lab­o­ra­tion between the peo­ple who owe their liveli­hoods to it. Each of them plays an impor­tant role to cre­ate an effi­cient sys­tem to sus­tain them­selves, in hope that oth­ers like them­selves would not have to go through the hur­dles they have gone through. Gandhi didn’t know his face would be on the Indian bank-note for the strug­gles against racial dis­crim­i­na­tion and for­eign rule — he mere­ly played his part in the fight that start­ed long before him.

But despite the many sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tors, the soci­ety only tends to remem­ber (by col­lec­tive mem­o­ry, not archived mem­o­ry) a select few. It’s not because these select few are any bet­ter than the ones along with them, but because they are either arti­fi­cial­ly (via bias­es, polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed, etc.) or ran­dom­ly cho­sen to be placed in the spot­light, and the oth­er sig­nif­i­cant ones are left in the shad­ows.

Such exam­ples include Edmond Halley, Steve Wozniak, Katharine Wright, Octave Chanute, Ada Lovelace, Emmy Noether, Mary Anning, Joseph Lister, etc. In fact, you would notice that even I have been very selec­tive when it comes to men­tion­ing unknown con­trib­u­tors, because a blog-post can only hold so much.

Sure, thanks to the inter­net, we have a bet­ter chance at mak­ing our­selves renowned. And only recent­ly, with the advent of com­mu­ni­ties like DeviantArt, have we real­ized that there are SO MANY PEOPLE who have skills and cre­ativ­i­ty like Monet or Da Vinci but could only ever have been “known” because they had been giv­en a chance to, because infor­ma­tion is freely avail­able to dis­trib­ute at a click of a but­ton. Considering this, the idea — that such thou­sands or per­haps mil­lions of artists who could not have been as well-known as Monet or Da Vinci sim­ply because of lack of agency — becomes all the more uncom­fort­able.

And yet, look­ing into the art gal­leries of DeviantArt’s 31 mil­lion artists, there are still those who EXTREMELY GOOD at what they do and are yet unknown by the very com­mu­ni­ty that gave them agency.

Which brings us to anoth­er obser­va­tion: The agency to allow artists or oth­er con­trib­u­tors to be renowned is often “man­u­fac­tured” by either the artists them­selves (the hard way) or some­one else (the easy way). Comics like Fisheye Placebo, The Cat Meets Fish and Fail By Error may not have enjoyed the pop­u­lar­i­ty they have today if it wasn’t for Michael Son’s inven­tion of Tapastic to address the needs of dig­i­tal-age com­ic cre­ators. In fact, the entire his­to­ry of art depends on the prin­ci­ple of con­struct­ing for­mats for the descen­dants to under­stand, mas­ter and improve upon to offer more auton­o­my for future ideas, push­ing the bound­aries of thought. In oth­er words, some­one needs to invent the paint­ing brush so that you could paint with it; now, you might be famous for your paint­ing, but inven­tor of the brush is most like­ly to be for­got­ten by time.

In oth­er words, fame is relat­ed to your con­tri­bu­tion to the world in some way, but it is def­i­nite­ly not DIRECTLY relat­ed. So it is a bet­ter idea to con­sid­er fame not as a reward or ulti­mate goal for the work you do, but as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to allow your work to man­i­fest great­ly into the world’s con­scious­ness.

But even if you DO achieve fame, how like­ly it is that what is remem­bered about you is the same “you”? In almost every case, we rarely remem­ber a person’s per­son­al­i­ty, unless that per­son­al­i­ty was direct­ly relat­ed to the con­tri­bu­tions made by that per­son. We admire Nikola Tesla, not only as an antag­o­nis­tic celebri­ty to Thomas Edison but also for his con­tri­bu­tions. But what we tend to remem­ber about him is an “ide­al” that we expect from him (and oth­ers that we admire), and not nec­es­sar­i­ly what he tru­ly was. You can also thank the flawed human mem­o­ry and its ten­den­cy to recon­struct itself depend­ing on stim­u­la­tion, where­in you remem­ber things that may or may not have any­thing to do with the sit­u­a­tion you attribute to. Not to men­tion, the way you are “imag­ined” a hun­dred — or even a thou­sand — years from now is high­ly mor­phed with the changes in par­a­digms and lin­guis­tics-depen­dent thought, as can be observed with many trans­lat­ed lit­er­ary works from the past. In such cas­es, not even the famous are safe from obliv­ion.

To make mat­ters more com­pli­cat­ed, we are nev­er real­ly our selves at every moments of pass­ing. Between 5 to 8 years, every atom in your body is replaced by new­er mate­ri­als as the dead cells are shed into the envi­rons. Beyond that, thanks to neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, your brain is not always the same in the next few moments from now, as every input and stim­u­la­tion either changes or strength­ens synap­tic con­nec­tions. You’re nev­er real­ly the same per­son through­out your life, so what about you is the “You” that you’d like to have remem­bered?

But on a lighter note, that is pre­cise­ly what the evo­lu­tion and sus­tain­ment of human­i­ty and oth­er species depends on: change. Without change, there could be no adap­ta­tion, no growth, no sur­vival. In fact, the rea­son we’re alive is because we have some “con­trol” over what changes through­out our lives, and how or what we could affect with it. The AntibioTick could cor­rect me on this, but doesn’t cul­ture (that we invent) and our own behav­iors essen­tial­ly influ­ence our epi­ge­net­ics, which in turn car­ry on as fur­ther “infor­ma­tion” as our­selves onto our own off­springs? That does not mean that the off­springs are us, but rather they are some­one else entire­ly with the same nec­es­sary nour­ish­ment that we cooked into our own beings, with per­haps the abil­i­ty to make bet­ter deci­sions that we did. In that regard, we are the work of art of count­less ances­tors — humans and oth­er crea­tures before them — that strived for sur­vival and oth­er per­fec­tions that are now inher­it­ed to us.

And if we have no oblig­a­tions to remem­ber them, then why would any­one have any oblig­a­tions to remem­ber us? It’s not about look­ing back, but look­ing for­ward. It’s not about our own form­less and evolv­ing iden­ti­ties, but those of the whole. While the ideals we strive to become are impor­tant, they are not nec­es­sar­i­ly any bet­ter than the oth­er six bil­lion peo­ple on this earth who strive for some­thing sim­i­lar.

Six bil­lion peo­ple, which includes you — just a drop in an ocean. You are NOT bet­ter than any of them. You are NOT spe­cial. But you cer­tain­ly are unique, and you STILL make the ocean BECOME the ocean, mak­ing the big­ger pic­ture look even more beau­ti­ful than if you weren’t there.

That thought, at first, may be scary, but then becomes the most lib­er­at­ing thing idea you could ever hope to have. It doesn’t mat­ter if the world does not remem­ber you, but it mat­ters very much if your close ones do.

So HOW do you leave your mark? Look around you: you already are! From wak­ing up in the morn­ing to going back to bed, each deci­sion you take doing sim­ple things every day influ­ences how the world works, and changes the course of events that could have hap­pened if you weren’t there. Each deci­sion you take affects the cycle and intro­duces change.

If it wasn’t for Sunil Gavaskar’s less known moth­er who encour­aged him on, he wouldn’t have been the well-known crick­eter we know him for today. If it wasn’t for Srinivasa Ramanujan’s par­ents giv­ing him a book of advanced trigonom­e­try at pre­cise­ly the time they did, he would not have become the math­e­mat­i­cal genius we know him as today. If it wasn’t for Edmond Halley’s self­less friend­ship, we would not have had Isaac Newton’s great­est con­tri­bu­tions in his­to­ry. There are count­less unsung heroes who have been respon­si­ble for great changes via sim­ple acts of kind­ness, with­out know­ing the wings they flap could trig­ger a hur­ri­cane.

Maybe you made some­one smile, which in turn made them appre­ci­ate some­thing and there­by nur­ture it. Maybe you encour­aged some­one, or lent them a help­ing hand, which in turn empow­ered them do things nobody except for them could ever do. Maybe you were just “there”, doing noth­ing but just watch­ing someone’s back lest they fall, and know­ing you were there and watch­ing was enough for the oth­er per­son to trudge on through their life’s dif­fi­cul­ties.

You’re always leav­ing a mark, in some way or anoth­er. The ques­tion is: What KIND of mark are you leav­ing behind?

For me, I want to be the can­dle of hope, burn­ing as bright as I can be for any­one to ignite their own flames from my spir­it. Because even if my life is snuffed out, I can die know­ing that there will be a thou­sand oth­er can­dles I helped light, a thou­sand oth­er can­dles that can eas­i­ly replace me and con­tin­ue the work I start­ed.

I want to be the first force of the falling domi­noes, a kind of chain reac­tion that nev­er stops. I want to be the but­ter­fly that caus­es a hur­ri­cane with its sub­tlest flut­ter­ing. I want to be that Stop sign by the road-side that lets you know if the path ahead may be dan­ger­ous. I want to be that first igni­tion of the fire­works, from where every light and spark BEGINS.

And it doesn’t mat­ter if nobody remem­bers me, and yet I’ll STILL be that one force that guid­ed human­i­ty in the right direc­tion. Because our lives are not our own. Because we have nev­er been JUST our­selves. Because we can­not deny our respon­si­bil­i­ties to the col­lec­tive “whole” that we call the human race, or even “Earth Race” (includ­ing oth­er bio­di­ver­si­ty).

Because when you’re look­ing Oblivion in the eye, you dare not blink.


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