Remember the old song, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”
The past few weeks have brought more than a few reminders that aging is inexorable and death inevitable. There have been two family funerals, and–on the brighter side–last night there was a surprise party for an old friend who was turning 70 (a milestone I passed several months ago). These reminders of mortality have reminded me of life’s essential questions, which–when you think about it–boil down to “what do I want to have accomplished during my life?” “What do I want people to remember about me?” and “What’s it all about?”
I’m not sure I can answer those questions affirmatively, but I can list the things that won’t matter when I’m dead: how much money I made, whether I was briefly famous (and all fame is brief!), whether I held a position others thought made me important, whether I triumphed over people I disliked. At the end of the day–at the end of all our days–I think most of us want to leave a world that is at least marginally better because we lived in it. We want to leave people who will miss us because our existence added something positive to their lives.
I’ve long since accepted the fact that my life goals are not necessarily shared by others, but I still wonder what sorts of legacies some of our captains of industry and political figures think they will leave. Do the bankers whose recklessness cost so many people their homes and jobs, the political operatives who approach campaigns like games to be won by propaganda and spin, the public officials who are more concerned with the next election than the with the common good, the ruthless corporate titans lobbying for special treatment…do they ever consider whether that is how they want to be remembered when the inevitable end comes?
The word telos–if I remember correctly–is from the Greek. It translates, roughly, to “end” “purpose” or “life goal.” It’s hard not to wonder what telos motivates some of today’s more disreputable “movers and shakers”–and whether any of them ever wonder “what it’s all about.”