Ozymandias and Our Quests for Immortality

Doris Kearns Goodwin recently interviewed Barack Obama about his legacy. As with everything Goodwin has written, it’s fascinating. Here’s a story that caught my eye:

Early in my presidency, I went to Cairo to make a speech to the Muslim world. And in the afternoon, after the speech, we took helicopters out to the pyramids. And they had emptied the pyramids for us, and we could just wander around for a couple hours [at] the pyramids and the Sphinx. And the pyramids are one of those things that live up to the hype. They’re elemental in ways that are hard to describe. And you’re going to these tombs and looking at the hieroglyphics and imagining the civilization that built these iconic images.

And I still remember it — because I hadn’t been president that long at that point — thinking to myself, There were a lot of people during the period when these pyramids were built who thought they were really important. And there was the equivalent of cable news and television and newspapers and Twitter and people anguishing over their relative popularity or position at any given time. And now it’s all just covered in dust and sand. And all that people know [today] are the pyramids.

Sometimes I carry with me that perspective, which tells me that my particular worries on any given day — how I’m doing in the polls or what somebody is saying about me … for good or for ill — isn’t particularly relevant. What is relevant is: What am I building that lasts?


4484379865_dc5a739271_zDavid Bolton

Funny, when I visit ancient monuments like the pyramids, I think the exact opposite.

I think, “Gee, all these people spending their whole lives building something so massive.” And now they’re all dead. Along with the person for whom the monument was built.

Dead. Gone. Just like I will be some day. You, too.

Whether you’re a billionaire or a pauper. A president or a janitor. A person or a leaf turning colors and falling to the forest floor. A mountain or a blade of grass. The same fate is coming for all of us.


We Know that We Will Die. But What Do We Do with This Information?

For many of this, the answer is to search for roundabout ways to become immortal.

Perhaps it’s not an exaggeration to say that the primary activity of all human beings from the beginning of human history, since we began telling stories to ourselves, has been the desire to seek immortality.

This is the essence of most religions – to act according to a certain moral code and then obtain eternal life.

This is also the main purpose of starting a family. It is the literal evolutionary purpose of our genes, to reproduce and carry on our legacy. To live out our lives and values through our offspring and their offspring after we die. That is, in a sense, immortality.

And of course, all of this desire for immortality is just an attempt to circumvent and escape one of the only facts that we know for certain. That we are all going to die.

We are forever seeking to perpetuate our own denial of death.

Legacy as Denial of Death

When Obama thinks about his legacy – indeed, when we all do – he’s thinking about the part of his life he sees as immortal. He uses that to focus his attention. The stuff that’s immortal is the stuff that matters.

Wealth as Denial of Death

The accumulation of wealth is largely about a desire for financial security, which is about knowing that no matter what happens in the world around you, you’ll be able to get what you need. And of course the primal need that wealth addresses is the idea that in times of disaster or peril, you will be all right. Wealth can buy you food, shelter, guns, or something else that could be the difference between life and death.

Accumulate wealth – it’s your best chance to live forever. Except, it’s really just an obsession with delaying the inevitable. To survive to an age of advanced decrepitude.

Ostentatious Philanthropy as Denial of Death

When a rich donor gives to his or her alma mater, and requests that a building or a or a department or a bench be named after him or her, it is the same phenomenon playing out again: a person seeking immortality through a donation.

The donor knows that his soul will not live on in the bench named after him, but the very idea of a bench at his alma mater bearing his name after he is gone is enough to spur him to give the college lots of money.

When Stephen Schwartzman gives $150 million to Yale to name a cultural center after him, some saw it as an outrageous waste of charitable giving. But he’s just trying to get the biggest bang for his buck in terms of immortality. Yale will presumably last for as long as American society does, and as long as Yale survives, Schwartzman’s name and memory, at its cultural center, will live on with it.

Art and Literature as Denial of Death

The first sentence on the manifesto page of this blog says, “The purpose of this blog is simple: When I’m on my deathbed I want to be able to say, ‘if you want to know what I learned and believed in this life, look up Joyous and Swift. It’s all there.’”

This is just my own vain desire for immortality, just like Schwartzman, Obama, and everyone else.

I want my thoughts, ideas, and words – encapsulated in a series of blog posts, to live forever.

Whenever we pursue goals that seek to “leave one’s mark on the world,” this is another way of expressing a desire for immortality. Whatever we say to ourselves, the ultimate motivation is the same: We want to show we are objects of primary value in the universe. And we want that to be true even after we die.

Once we move past the basic necessities of safety and security, our focus invariably shifts toward achieving an impact on life that extends beyond our immediate life, to seek immortality.

A Question of Time Horizon

To become President, you have to cultivate an image and a reputation throughout your entire life. It would make sense that someone who became president would thus obsess over the long view. Thinking about your legacy in terms of thousands of years, you would act differently than if you only think a day, a week, a year, or even ten years into the future. Thinking on a time scale a thousand years long, building a massive pyramid or a obsessing over your political legacy makes sense.

But if you think about your legacy on a million or a billion-year time scale, it no longer matters.

On a billion-year time scale, it’s not obvious that a presidential cabinet meeting or the construction of a great pyramid matters any more than playing with your dogs in the backyard.

In a billion years, even the greatest and most optimistic human creation will be dust, along with every other artifact of our existence.

The Lone and Level Sands Stretch Far Away

One of my favorite poems is Ozymandias, by Percy Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The point of the poem is simple and profound: Time will lay bare all of our quests for immortality. They will end just as it did for the kings of kings, with a bare plaque and a big pile of sand and decay.

And that’s ok. All we can do is enjoy the movie while it lasts.

Maybe This is Depressing. But I Think It’s Liberating.

It’s so easy to get worked up about small things. How much money we make. Our reputation. The kind of car we drive. Whether we have the stuff we want. Our social status.

We work so hard to get ahead.

But when we think of our quests for immortality, we should think of them with a wink and a smile. Human quests for immortality matter little, as soon as you zoom out on the time horizon.

Now is Forever

I try not to prioritize the opinions of those living a thousand years from now over my own experience of life now. To the extent that anything in this world matters, it matters now.

Thinking with a thousand-year horizon will make you more ambitious: Thinking with an even longer horizon will make you less so.

Thinking with a thousand-year horizon might make you inclined to build a pyramid as a memorial to yourself and your family: Thinking with a billion-year horizon might make you want to sit down by a stream and just listen to the world that surrounds you.

Thinking with a billion-year horizon is another way of just pondering the miracle of our own existence.

Zooming out on the time horizon is a reminder to lighten up, to stop taking myself so seriously. To enjoy the ever-present now and the intense and powerful experience of the immediate, physical world that surrounds us.

The bigger the boondoggle – the bigger the pyramid – the greater the distraction from what is immediate and essential.

Now is forever. The more you focus your energy building for a thousand tomorrows, the more you might be inclined to lose today.