May 30, 2024


The question I am a 54 year old woman with a good career and a stable marriage. I live across the world from my parents, my siblings and their children and I am child free. I have reduced contact with them to short and polite birthday and Christmas messages, which they respond to, but we have no relationship or ongoing contact as such. It is close to alienating, and I have no desire to try to repair it. I am child-free because I always feared repeating my family’s parenting style and had no sense that my childhood was a positive experience.

I became obsessed with the idea of ​​a legacy of a life well lived. I have always attached high value to social contribution and hard work. But as I increasingly contemplated the likelihood of dying alone and without children, I began to become quite critical of the point of pursuit in my career, and how and what I should do with my time. I feel like “being forgotten” is a realistic proposition – and it makes me wonder if it’s liberating, and I can stop striving, do as I please, or should I strive harder and find a way to make my mark, to to ensure that I live a life that will mean something? Is it just an indulgent existential crisis? Should I just get over myself?

Philippa’s answer Oh no, don’t get over yourself. Rather than dismissing your feelings as indulgent or trivial, acknowledge them with compassion and curiosity. You’re touching other people’s lives today by writing in this magazine and making us think about the issue – that’s a bit of your legacy there.

You don’t have meaningful relationships with your family, and it seems like this has got you thinking about who will remember you, and will it matter if no one does? The painter Francis Bacon came to my mind when I read your email as he once said: “I suddenly realized, there it is – this is how life is… existing for a moment, [then] wiped away like flies on a wall… We are born, and we die and there is nothing else. We are just part of animal life.”

By adopting that philosophy, the pressure is off – or, if you want pressure, there is William James: “The greatest purpose of life is to live it for something that will outlive you.”

If we lived only for a future outside of our own lives, we would be in danger of missing out on what we have. What we have is now, and it is our job to make the best of it. What do you want your guiding principles to be? My advice is, think about what your life includes: its meaning; involvement; satisfaction; and connection. These four principles can lead to pleasure and not necessarily just selfish pleasure either. For example, connecting with others provides mutual pleasure.

Do you strive harder to make a positive difference to the world or do you decide, since you will be forgotten anyway, to free yourself from any such obligation? But maybe it’s not either/or, maybe you can do as you please and still touch people’s lives in a meaningful, lasting way. Consider the question of personal legacy as more than just being remembered, because by answering it you may find out what you want your life to mean to you in the present. What is life about for you, your partner and your chosen community?

To help you get closer to an answer, try this exercise: imagine yourself on your deathbed, looking back over your days here on earth – what are you going to see? What were the wasted hours and how did you spend them? And which days were well spent and what did you do? Which of the things you have done would you be most proud of? What do you regret? Who are the people around your deathbed? Do you want to look back on a life that seems worthwhile to others? Or a life that felt good to you?

What were the very first thoughts that came to mind when you asked yourself all these questions? The first thing that comes to mind in this situation is usually the “true” answer, before logic and reason kick in to give you an answer that may sound “right” but doesn’t resonate with you in the way that a true answer does not.

Experiment with meaning, engagement, satisfaction and connection. At 54 you are still relatively young. You have time to decide how you want the rest of your life to feel and what you want it to mean. Legacy doesn’t have to be grand or public. It can be found in the lives you touch, the relationships you nurture, and the impact you have on others, whether through your work (paid or unpaid), community involvement, or personal connections. Perhaps you will decide to continue to strive in your career, or perhaps you will turn to pursue new passions, or find joy in everyday experiences. Whatever you do, remember that your life has meaning and value, regardless of how others may see it, now or after you’re gone.

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Recommended reading Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin D Yalom; The Top Five regret the dying by Bronnie Ware

Philippa Perry will appear at the Also Festival, 12-14 July 2024 (also-festival.com)

Each week, Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to askphilippa@guardian.co.uk. Submissions are subject to us terms and conditions



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