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Last month, we lost iconic character actor Harry Dean Stanton. A rangy Kentuckian with a prematurely craggy face, he was a fixture in American cinema for the past half century. His presence drew the viewer into his world-weary eyes, wondering about the depth behind them. All the while, he possessed an innate cool; a Hollywood version of Johnny Cash.
Reading various encomia about his passing, I came across one tidbit I can’t stop thinking about. A few years back, his similarly spooky friend David Lynch posed a question to Stanton: “How would you like to be remembered?”
Stanton’s answer: “It doesn’t matter.”
At first I thought it a sardonic comment by a cantankerous old guy who had seen it all, but soon found the great wisdom in it. As humans, we’re always trying to create a legacy, whether amassing a great fortune, accomplishing historic feats, or raising kids who will end up doing both. That’s why Stanton’s answer, especially coming from a self-obsessed world like Hollywood, seemed so jarring.
Due to a mix of turning 50 last year, the dementia dissolving my father’s mind, and my late introduction to Stoicism, I’ve been dwelling a lot on mortality. Not in a brooding or suicidal way, just trying to accept where it fits in the grand nature of things. Losing a parent, as I did my mom a decade ago, is no tragedy; it sucks — really, really bad — but it’s the proper order of things.
I’ve actually been spoiled in this area. I’ve never lost a child, a close friend, or dealt with any near-death experience myself. But death, paradoxically, is a part of life. Facing it with courage and compassion, rather than fear and fretting, is essential to one’s personal contentment.
Not to bore you with too much ancient Roman wisdom, but Stoicism centers on dividing everything into two categories: that which is under your control and that which isn’t. This enables you to focus on those things in the first category rather than bang your head against the wall fighting those in the second. “We cannot choose our external circumstances,” the philosopher said, “but we can always choose how we respond to them.”
Of all the things utterly out of our control, what people think of us when we’re gone is way up there on the list. Stanton wasn’t worried about the future, or what people whispered about him after he was dead and gone. Instead, he focused on the present. Until his last breath, he was acting in great films, singing favorite songs, and enjoying the company of his loved ones.
That’s a pretty solid legacy.