About a month ago I was heading into my West Village real estate office, worried about all the things a new business owner worries about. Staff issues, overhead, clients, accounting, all weighing on my mind. As I stepped off the F train at the West 4th station I blindly walked into a strip of yellow tape while fiddling with my phone.
If you are familiar with New York, on a subconscious level you begin to understand that the entire city is built on the ability to be completely unaware of anything more than what lies three feet in front of you. New York is not a jungle; it’s a maze that funnels its inhabitants from place to place, from opportunity to opportunity. You are both lulled and hurried into being oblivious to the world.
While blithely checking my emails I nearly bumped into a transit worker. Just beyond her lay the body of one of New York’s thousands of homeless individuals.
Growing up in the Bronx in the ’80s you get to know a little about death. Whether it be gangs, drugs or just plain bad luck, you learn the frailty of life pretty quickly. The difference, however, is that death typically has a name. Andre, Neville, Ms. Heyward — the lives that passed before and around me all had context. They all had a story. The man who lay before me on a subway platform, covered in a dingy blanket (presumably his own), told no story and presumably left no legacy.
Man’s ultimate goal and desire, understood or not, is a discernible legacy. To be known, to leave an impact on this earth. More than our children reminiscing about our lives, we want the friend and ultimately the stranger to know of and revel in our existence. The potter’s field is our nightmare; Doe the surname of a life not lived.
Fear of anonymity drives our reality TV culture and gives birth to our celebutantes. It makes us keep score with Facebook friends and Twitter followers. In the 21st century anonymity is our Voldemort, “He Who Shall Not Be Named.”
In a perfect world the drive for legacy, the need to be known and understood, would drive acts of nobility and charity. The need to leave a discernible history would result in great acts. Anonymity should drive forth into the world the next round of MLKs and JFKs. Life, however, doesn’t actually operate in the grand gesture. The world is built on small acts. Salvation isn’t rested on the broad shoulders of a few but the weary backs of the many. It’s the thousands of sandwiches delivered by Meals on Wheels and the shoes donated by Tom’s. Our humanity is simultaneously corporate and intimate.
There is the old saying that if it weren’t for the need to look impressive to women, men would never have accomplished anything. I believe that it is by our need to erect monuments to ourselves that humanity accomplishes anything. Our need to create those monuments, however, need not make us Pharaoh, but instead it can make us all heroes. To those of you who say self-satisfaction is not proper motivation to do good, I say altruism is a story we tell ourselves as we build our legacies and pretend no one is watching. Recognition is not a byproduct of the good we do, it is in fact the product we mine in the eyes, hearts, and mouths of those around us. We need to be honest with ourselves and understand that it is okay to seek the pat on the back, the handshake, or the award from our peers. Selfishness and selflessness hold hands and walk a very narrow road.
My deepest fear lay before me as the mass of humanity rolled by a life lived with no impact on the world. No good works and no memorial. Ironically, in the end, I have become the memorial of that man. His impact on me, though post-mortem and accidental, still is as real as anything that has left a mark on my life. A stern reminder that life comes without warranty of defect nor guarantee of happiness.
Aristotle said we are what we repeatedly do. The truth is, we are what people know we repeatedly do.