The brief bout of despair was induced by a dusty gray box of a desktop computer. Specifically, it was the login screen that got me.
This was my first day as editorial assistant to Professor Webster and already I had a stack of paperwork to process. Step one: boot up the computer. It buzzed and blinked to life, and after a technological hesitation it greeted me with a blue login screen.
“Dr. Webster? It looks like I need a password for the computer. Do you know what it is?”
“Oh, right.” He hopped up and walked over. “JoeGould3.”
“With a u,” he corrected over my shoulder. “You don’t know about Joe Gould? Oh, I have to tell you about him.”
Thus began my education on the bohemian Bostonian befriended by the better-known E.E. Cummings. Professor Webster was an expert on Cummings and, by extension, knew a bit of Gould’s biography. The man was a writer who was often homeless. He was always creative and sometimes crazy, it seemed. I wish I could tell you more, but the truth is I don’t remember many of the details that washed over me in Dr. Webster’s wave of academic enthusiasm.
Mainly what I remember is that when he concluded his speech with a definitive nod and retreated back to his desk, I typed “JoeGould3” into the login screen. The name granted me access to the files I needed, and that was that.
Twice a week, all semester: “JoeGould3.”
This brings us to my brief despair. Walking across campus after work, my hair whipping in a cold wind as the sky darkened, I wondered what good old Joe would think of being reduced to a password. He spent his life raving about his accomplishments as an author. He must’ve thought he’d leave a larger legacy than the ********* displayed when I typed his name (minus the space, plus the 3).
Fifty years from now I’ll probably be dead, I thought to myself, and maybe fifty years after that I’ll just be a password.
Twice a week, all semester: “KarieLuidens3.”
A sudden and profound disappointment sank through me. Is that all I’ll get for a life of hard work? Oblivion? Or, if I’m lucky, token recognition?
When I try (and fail) to picture a globe of seven billion souls and growing, I can’t help but believe that the vast majority of us will be forgotten not long after we breathe our last breaths. Think of all the generations who rose and fell before us only to be utterly lost to time. Sure, in school we learn about the achievements of a small crowd of historical figures. But what about the millions of ordinary individuals whose identities were buried along with their bones?
You and I, my friend, are just a few more in the thousands-of-thousands who will live and die. I promise you, the universe will forget us.
What do we do with ourselves, knowing that?
I approached the campus parking lot in the gathering dusk and pulled my keys from my coat pocket. I’d had a productive afternoon, but so what? Did my life make a difference? I sighed and slumped sideways into my used car.
The threat of non-existence motivates many people to try to build a lasting legacy. They say they want to “change the world,” to cure a disease or design the next tech breakthrough, to win the highest prize in their field. They crave the sight of their names engraved in stone or bronze—something that looks more permanent than the skin we’re in.
Is that why people write and publish? To be remembered?
I hope not. A few brilliant authors might win entry into the literary canon, but most writers—writers like me—will never rise beyond obscurity. We’ll create fresh, poignant works. Then other writers will create works of their own, and then others, and we’ll each grow dusty in turn. Libraries are already stuffed with more than anyone could read in a lifetime, and they’ll only keep growing. Readers are obliged to be selective about whose words they honor with their time and attention. And they read for themselves, not to validate the egos of the dead.
So I try to remind myself that I’m not writing to make a name for myself or to leave some sort of lasting mark on humanity. Should that happen over the course of my creative career, wonderful. But all I’ll strive to do is, in the words of Sylvia Plath, “live, love, and say it well in good sentences.” If something I write is meaningful to someone, then I’ll consider myself lucky. That’s all I could ask for.
Back in that campus parking lot, I groaned. Poor old Joe. I groaned again; poor old me. Then I sat up in the driver’s seat, put the key in the ignition, and started the engine. Night was falling. No point sulking around. I had places to be and good sentences to write.
Yes, a hundred years from now, I’ll be forgotten, my name merely archived with everyone else’s in various out-of-service servers. But that’s okay; I don’t need to leave a legacy to make my life matter. I’ll just try to write something meaningful for whoever might be reading.
Thanks for honoring me with your time and attention, dear reader. I hope these words mean something to you.
I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been turned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.
The Fault in Our Stars
Do you hope to leave a legacy on earth after you're gone? What sort of mark are you trying to make with your mortal days? Leave a comment below or on one of my social media pages...