Few events are more sobering than a funeral of someone we have deeply cherished. Beyond facing the devastating loss of someone beloved, funerals force us to confront our own mortality — the ticking clock on our own lives.
Many of us spend far too much time intoxicated with finite and temporary aspects of our lives, such as our career paths, wealth and success. Too brief are the moments we take to reflect on that which matters most — life itself and the people around us. We may also consider relationships we have neglected. The love we have for others we may have failed to cherish enough. The timeframe on the lives of others we love. A sober consideration of our brief life’s significance and what we have done to make an impact on our world.
These thoughts provoked me last week as I attended the funeral of my beloved uncle, Gerald Allan Flynn. The vast congregation evidenced that my uncle had touched the lives of many. Witnessing friends and family speak to the kind of person he was confirmed everything in the inspiring obituary. Many testified to the “meekness,” “humility” and unquestionable “love” for which he would always be remembered. The more I contemplated this, the more I begged the question of how I would be remembered, and what would be true.
It is humanity’s single most intimate and ironic question: “How will I be remembered?” On some level, the question stems from our desire to outlive our brief physical existence. To combat mortality. We want to leave our mark on history. We want a legacy that lives beyond us. Of course, it is not enough that we are remembered. People such as Benedict Arnold and Judas leave us legacies which are far from respectable. The question of how we will be remembered also stems from a deep fear: that we will die with a bad legacy, with none worth mentioning, or one that reflects reality.
The fear and courage stemming from this question is responsible for world history being rewritten time and again. History books have been rewritten for the purpose of covering up humanity’s deepest flaws, treacherous acts and mistakes. From mass genocides to enslaving foreign nations, people in positions of power have made great attempts to reinvent their legacies.
For nearly 500 years, Christopher Columbus was highly honored for discovering America in 1492 and making first contact with the indigenous peoples. I can personally recall chanting the familiar classroom rhyme: “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Closely examining his record, historians have revealed that Columbus enslaved many natives of the West Indies, seized and enslaved indigenous peoples, and was responsible for the death of countless indigenous men, women and children.
Consider the recent controversy over the lyrics of the Star Spangled Banner and its reference to slaves, a poem that has been our national anthem since 1931. Consider the mass movements to eradicate symbols that purportedly stood for virtues and freedoms, but were later revealed to stand for injustice. This movement led to the Confederate Flag being removed from historic monuments. These sentiments were echoed by former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley when she called for the removal of the Confederate flag.
In the 1990s, the Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform spoke out about the fear of their own textbooks painting Japan as the initial aggressor in World War II. The society stated that they believed “the characterization must be eliminated” to retain its national recognition and history. The Japanese feared that students would no longer respect their ancestors after learning about certain atrocities. For other examples, look no further than the Cambodia Genocide Denial, the Nanking Massacre Denial and the Battle of Agincourt, among many others.
It matters because we live in a world that, in large part, has only desired to look upon the goodness in people and societies while ignoring flaws. However, our flaws are what make us most human.
The flaws throughout our world’s history with regard to slavery and other injustices are not admirable, but they are facts. Rewriting history will not correct the past mistakes and bad acts. Our ability to learn from the past and refuse to repeat the same mistakes is what makes our potential as human beings limitless.
The same logic applies to us individually. We should not intend to rewrite our own history or be remembered in a light most favorable. Rather, let us learn from the mistakes of our past. Let us be authentic and genuine with one another. We should all strive to leave this Earth not in a light most favorable for our legacy, but in the light that is true. The combination of our flaws, weaknesses, gifts and strengths will serve us better than rewriting history can.
A native of Pacifica, Jonathan Madison worked as professional policy staff for the U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Financial Services, from 2011-2013. Jonathan works as an attorney and can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.