As I sat grieving during my father’s memorial service and listened to the role call of his professional accomplishments, I thought about legacies. We all want to leave a mark on this world, some remembrance that says, “I was here.” A name on the cornerstone of a building, an eponymic theorem, a footnote in a history book, or even a simple gravestone. What struck me, however, were the people who came to the service whose lives he had touched in some positive way. I saw his life not only as his work in the public sector as an engineer, but as an accumulation of all his good and kind acts that touched me, touched friends, acquaintances, strangers.
I believe we are immortal. Not in an afterlife, but in this life. The second law of thermodynamics states that the total entropy, or chaos, of a system tends to increase over time. Yet we struggle to build civilizations to decrease the chaos, to build systems that benefit each other, to build a knowledge base to give order to our understanding of the world. There exist forces that act to destroy, to increase chaos. Some are natural: famine, pestilence, tempests. Some forces we bring upon ourselves: envy, greed, pride, aggression. History may record the villains in our past and their acts of destruction, but it is the acts of the unsung many who rebuild after war, who care for the injured and sick, who search for wisdom in time of tragedy that continues to put humanity on a progressive course. Our communal history of human advancement is the sum total of individual acts of altruism and kindness that have preceded us, which are handed down to each of us as surely as if they were engraved in our DNA.
At the reception after the service I met colleagues my father had mentored, acquaintances he had aided in time of need, friends he had helped smile in times of adversity. I reminisced with them of his love of a good joke, his willingness to break out his tools to tackle any project, his passion for teaching others how to enjoy dancing.
I look in the mirror and I see my father. I see how his love has shaped me. I see the influence of his grandfather, whom I know only from faded photographs. I see in my reflection his family, teachers, mentors and friends, whose kindness and loving acts shaped him. When I look at my children, I see the best parts of me reflected in their choices and actions. That will endure long after my body has decayed to a higher state of entropy. I couldn’t ask for a better legacy.