Who am I after I’m gone – and now?
“If I don’t come back.”
I’ve had this thought many times while wandering in the woods. A trail I hadn’t noticed before will suddenly twinkle at me, beckoning, and like a single gal at a bar I’ll appraise and calculate. Will saying yes lead to an exhilarating experience or a dumb fiasco? After I turn to explore, conscious that I didn’t bring along my GPS wayfinder, I watch for little landmarks – a patch of orange fungus, an elephantine rock, a skinny trunk of birch sprawled crosswise on the trail and especially any forks where I might pause and hesitate on my return trip.
I have indeed gotten lost several times, most recently when leaves piled onto a faint logging track I was following confused me. As I looked around in a circle, the terrain offered zero clues. Then suddenly I couldn’t even distinguish which way I’d come from. Worse, the late afternoon light was starting to fade. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid! Heart drumming, thoughts skittering, I bushwhacked in the direction I guessed was toward home.
Dying from that sort of misadventure happens. Two towns over, a man in his sixties went missing in the woods one April, and despite days of official rescue searches and weeks more by his friends and family, his remains weren’t found until November. Just before it got dark my last time lost, the logging track dimly took shape, and I strode it safely out to our road. But if I hadn’t, would my husband Bu even realize I’d gone into the woods during what I’d told him was “a walk”?
“Soon, very soon, thou wilt be ashes, or a skeleton, and either a name or not even a name; but name is sound and echo. And the things which are much valued in life are empty and rotten and trifling, and like little dogs biting one another.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations V.33
“If I don’t come back.”
I wrote this down on the outside of an envelope I planned to leave on the keyboard of my home computer when I went to the hospital for a colonoscopy last month. In the envelope: instructions for Bu.
Here too my concern was not some Chicken Little anxiety. In 2009, I awoke from a colonoscopy to the news that my previously normal heart had gone haywire during the procedure. Two days later, still in the hospital, I was brought to the basement of the building, put under again and zapped with electrical paddles to shock my heart back into the correct rhythm. The burn marks on my chest took weeks to fade, and after a month of rigorous follow-up I received an all-clear.
But laced through that medical trepidation was another factor. Last year, I wrote a précis of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations for a client, and it stuck with me. I wasn’t able to shake the second-century Roman emperor’s pungent thoughts about mortality.
“He who fears death either fears the loss of sensation or a different kind of sensation. But if thou shalt have no sensation, neither wilt thou feel any harm.” – Meditations VIII.58
As I type now, I can picture Bu upstairs in his study, his chair tilted back, his fuzzy-slippered feet on top of the desk, his long body padded inside a down vest and baggy sweat pants, white hair sticking up every which way like the crown of a cockatoo. When I picture him after I’m gone, it feels no different. He looks much the same, except not as relaxed. Without me, he’s cursing the complications he has to figure out and manage.
Though my imagination pivots equally well to Bu out of my sight now and Bu when I no longer exist, there’s a blunder in the second move. As Marcus Aurelius implies, if the “I” has vanished, so has my ability to feel happiness, relief, regret or other sensations. The instructions in my envelope, pertaining to a world without me, were as fantastic, pointless and null as a road map of El Dorado, Shangri-La or one of Jupiter’s moons.
“If I don’t come back.”
In the envelope, I was asking Bu to send a manuscript I was finishing up to an agent who knew me 20 years ago. Getting that book published would gratify my ego – an ego that, according to the outcome stipulated on the envelope, would already have gone dark. When I thought ahead to a future where everything I wrote but didn’t yet publish has been shredded or dumped, it hurt. I felt as if a human-sized vise from an Inquisition torture chamber had twisted down on me and kept on turning. My request to Bu seemed to assuage that pain.
“He who has a vehement desire for posthumous fame does not consider that every one of those who remember him will himself also die very soon; then again also they who have succeeded them, until the whole remembrance shall have been extinguished as it is transmitted through men who foolishly admire and perish.” – Meditations IV.19
Yet whether publication of that manuscript made me a star, clunked into a cultural void or just never happened, I wouldn’t have a chance to experience any result of Bu acting on my note. Metaphysically, my request in the envelope thus functioned as if it was written in disappearing ink. Logically, it was idiotic. But apart from any ask I made of Bu, the same went for my concern itself. Once I’m gone, whether my book achieved recognition or oblivion would be all the same for me – that is, nothing. Therefore it can’t make sense for me to think about my own posthumous fame.
Being remembered is also futile, Marcus Aurelius argued, because the rememberers are already fading themselves, fast on their way to nothingness too. How ironic that sounds coming from someone whose star continued to shine brightly, nearly 2,000 years after he expired. Stoicism, the philosophy Marcus Aurelius shared with figures like Epictetus and Seneca, has had a distinguished roll call of modern fans, from presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Bill Clinton to authors Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Steinbeck.
Of course even those names, and any numbers of current followers constitute “sound and echo,” according to the first passage I quoted above. Marcus Aurelius’s take on fame turning to ashes hit me much, much harder than the “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” from Ecclesiastes that I’ve known since long-ago Sunday School. Caring about the judgment of posterity was like trying to warm your hands by holding a coffee mug whose already cooled contents will soon evaporate.
“Look at the minds of those who seek fame, observe what they are, and what kind of things they avoid, and what kind of things they pursue. And consider that as the heaps of sand piled on one another hid the former sands, so in life the events which go before are soon covered by those which come after.” – Meditations VII.34
Again and again in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius referred to “empty fame.” From him, an emperor who commanded armies and administered the law for tens of millions, this did not signify world weariness. He knew he had a status that might bolster pride. He also knew it amounted to nothing more in the final analysis than a “clapping of tongues.” And often fame means less than that – simply a lofty illusion. It doesn’t necessarily equal riches, privileges, bows from strangers, worldly power or ticker-tape parades.
When I thought about my own modest brushes with fame, this perspective smarted. Pre-Internet, when I published a nonfiction book that got picked up by the Book of the Month Club, I saw it in the window of a bookstore I often passed by. This book enabled me to speak at conferences and brought me semi-annual checks for 20 years. But apart from money and career coups, my reputation was a bagatelle agreed upon by certain people and myself: a tune, a story, a whiff wafting through the air that only certain noses knew.
What’s more, Marcus Aurelius pointed out the hollowness of supposed admiration from strangers – people one didn’t know, never could know and whom perhaps one wouldn’t even respect. Ouch. My sister, a lawyer, once told me she was sitting in court and craned her neck to see what article the woman next to her was reading. “My sister wrote that,” she said and the other woman retorted, “Go on!” That incident stood out to me because most of the time publication day comes and goes like any other.
“If I don’t come back.”
Like picturing Bu upstairs now in his study and then Bu after I’m dead, I can project hundreds of thousands of reading scenes in kitchens, offices and subways cars both now and months, years or decades after I’ve been buried. If I never directly heard of such scenes, I’d believed in them. But according to Marcus Aurelius, they’re wistful smoke, a shimmering mirage and therefore something I should dismiss. Dead or alive, chasing fame has a ghostly, mixed-up aspect that doesn’t make sense, he argued.
“How strangely men act… To be themselves praised by posterity, by those whom they have never seen or ever will see, this they set much value on. But this is very much the same as if thou shouldst be grieved because those who have lived before thee did not praise thee.” – Meditations VI.18
Here now came the part that gave me the mother of all migraines. Marcus Aurelius compared wanting to be praised after one’s gone with wishing for such praise before one came into existence. Posterity, anteriority: Either way, no consciousness existed to feel gratified by the glory. This passage shocked me like a thunderbolt. The world before I was born, an actual experience of that past, sat far outside anything I’d ever wondered about.
I’d watched historical movies, of course, with costumes and sets that conjured up a jaunty Atlanta during Scarlett O’Hara’s time, a South Seas island with soldiers on R&R during the War of the Pacific or even the cobblestoned streets of imperial Rome. But imagining a genuine scene before I was born involved quite a different twist of mind.
Scrunching up my eyes, I envisioned my parents as they looked when I was young chatting at a breakfast table in New York City before they had any of us four kids. Maybe I once saw a photo like this. But I don’t know what they talked about, how many chairs they had or whether they’d eaten fried eggs or toast and coffee. And even if I did know, putting myself there as a hovering observer was absurd, as fake and impossible as picturing Bu reading my note after I really did not survive.
“If I don’t come back.”
Marcus Aurelius sure knew how to puncture delusions. I felt the air escaping from the idea of aiming for praise after I’d left the world. Whatever Bu did then with my piles of pages, my hopes couldn’t be any concern of mine. Along with that deflation, I thought hard about my writing motives. Since the age of seven I’d loved putting words together, figuring things out, arranging phrases as art, creating a message that sang. I did that mostly for the joy of it. But when I nodded to myself about a piece that felt finished, I also had an itch to share it and bask in others’ appreciation. Calming an itch is tough, especially when it ripples faintly and persistently under the skin.
“Consider thyself to be dead, and to have completed thy life up to the present time; and live according to nature the remainder which is allowed thee.” – Meditations VII.56
While I wrote this piece, a hunter got lost in the woods in my town on a cold, rainy night. A state police search failed to locate him, and two days later someone came across his corpse. Trying to learn more about his case, I found messages exchanged by a couple of dozen other hunters, speculating about what had happened, describing their own close calls and listing the survival gear they packed along to prevent such a debacle.
“If I don’t come back.”
Marcus Aurelius’s advice to “live according to nature” doesn’t mean abandoning oneself to the elements. One can take prudent precautions and then live in the moment. With respect to the woods, I ordered a rescue whistle and planned to bring along my GPS and cell phone when I hiked (though iffy signals make the latter a feeble fallback) even if I didn’t give up my risky habit of exploring alone. With respect to my colonoscopy, which had a death rate of one in 10,000, my doctor reviewed what happened last time and prescribed changes in my preparation and the sedation. I calmed my nerves, let them put me under and came back up without disaster.
Before heading to the hospital I ripped up the envelope I’d thought to leave for Bu. That amounted to an Escher staircase endlessly looping back on itself. I got that. But unease about the scorn Marcus Aurelius hurled onto the concept of fame continued to tickle at me, a low-grade torment. I had quit writing seriously for two decades and felt at peace with that. I began writing again, though, engaged with the craft, sculpting and whittling to communicate truths. Creating each lattice of words, I experienced heavenly satisfaction.
In my basement I have a delicate framed square of calligraphy, a Latin proverb from the era of Marcus Aurelius: “LITTERA SCRIPTA MANET, VOLAT IRREVOCABILE VERBUM. Writing abides, the spoken word takes wing and cannot be recalled.” Who gave this to me I don’t remember, and I’m not sure why I let it sit so many years in storage. Spots of grime and blots of moisture have splotched the high-grade paper under the glass. Should I clean off the dust and reclaim this as my motto? Or like the wildflowers, ferns and branches that I so appreciate in the woods, should I let my patterned words fly and scatter?
George Long, tr. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (1862)
Marcia Yudkin lives in the woods of Goshen, Massachusetts (population 960). The author of 17 books, she now publishes a Substack newsletter called Introvert UpThink, in which she critiques society’s myths and misunderstandings about introverts. She is completing a memoir called Nothing to Prove: Recovering from Wittgenstein.