When you think about your life, do you ever think about what you want to see when you are looking back over it in years to come, at the very end? What kind of impact will you have made? What contributions? What will people say about you? How will your epitaph read?
The answers to these questions are powerful indeed. They will help you define what is important to you in your life if there is any confusion. They will also help to define or confirm one of those really big questions – “what is the purpose of your life”. Done properly, they can also be powerful tools to help us realise where we are actually living in a way that is working against the life that is most important to us.
The way we answer these questions is known grammatically as the ‘Future Perfect”. This is expressed as “It/I will have been..”. It’s a powerful way of expressing your will for the future and summing up the design of your life.
Thinking about it this way somehow makes the question of purpose not so difficult. For example, I know I want to be remembered as a great friend, husband, son, father, and teacher just for starters. So this tells me that this is a big part of what my purpose is – to be their for the people in my life. One directly reflects the other, and if you know your purpose, then this will help give a finer grain, more detail, to the answer.
Ancient Greek society was intensely aware of this question of legacy. This is seen most clearly in the great epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The greatest heroes, like Achilles, strived for what they called “immortal glory”. While deeply religious, the immortality of the gods they worshipped actually highlighted the mortality of mankind. Immortality for men and women, lay in the prospect of being remembered, primarily in the form of epic poetry.
In the Iliad, Achilles wants to be remembered for his glorious deeds in battle. However, the drama of the epic begins when this is threatened, after an argument between Achilles and a higher ranking lord (Agamemnon) results in Achilles having an important prize taken off him by Agamemnon to compensate him for his own loss. It sounds complicated, but the point is that the main function of fighting (from the perspective of the hero) is the winning of glory, everything else is a poor second. After their argument, Achilles refuses to fight, and he continues to refuse until their camp is besieged by the armies of Troy led by Hektor who manage to set fire to the Greek fleet – the fabled thousancd ships that were launched after the theft of Helen.
It is at this point, when the ships are under attack, when Achilles makes a tragic error. He sends his closest companion, Patroklos, disguised as himself and leading Achilles’ men, to fight back the Trojan attack. Patroklos is successful, but he also dies in the process. He gets caught up in the heat of battle and his own amazing success at repelling the attack, and so he pushes his luck too far. You see, the error I believe is this: Achilles is so focused on a narrow idea of purpose and legacy, one that is mainly based on the ego, that he loses sight of the big picture. He forgets why the warrior is honoured in the first place. He forgets that immortal glory is bestowed on the warrior that does something great for his community, and not just for himself. In fact, a great warrior may even sacrifice himself in order to save his community. Only when Patroklos dies does he realise that he should have been there to protect his friend, and that he had, in his egoic state of mind, sent his friend to his death, as he had sent so many others while he refused to serve. It’s only after this that Achilles reconnects to a deeper purpose where his greatness as a warrior enables him to protect and serve others.
So even if you think you know what your purpose is, have a think about the “future perfect” – and ask yourself, how it will have been? If your purpose is to create music or art, or to lead in business or politics, or anything else, see how this is informed by attending to the question of legacy.
If you are a creator, what will your art have stood for – did it stand boldly, breaking new ground, speaking the unspoken, or did it conform to the fashions of the day?
If you led, will you be remembered as one who inspired and united people or as one who divided communities with fear? If you are a banker, will you be looked back upon as a champion of the highest ethical standards or as one who turned their back on people in times of great need? Did you live courageously, standing up for what you believed and expressing this in your labours, or did you let fear govern your life?
When purpose is connected to legacy, we will start to see how the life we live is not just about the ‘I’ at all. Instead it’s about the ‘Us’.
Most importantly though, you need to ask yourself, whether the way you are living right now is congruent with this image of your life or are you just living in the shadow of it? What needs to change in order to claim the future perfect.