What Will Be Your Potato?
Musings on what to leave behind -- and what you'd like people to leave for you
Posted Nov 26, 2017
The Prussian King Frederick II — aka Frederick the Great — had plenty of qualities that endeared him to his people. His philosophical turn of mind. His tactical genius on the battlefield. Even his support for animal rights. But these days folks remember a quirkier contribution of “Old Fritz”: He got his farmers to grow potatoes.
It wasn’t an easy sell. Nobody wanted the ugly import from a heathen continent (South America), no matter how nutritious the king insisted it was. Frederick had to trick his people into accepting it. But his efforts paid off. The lowly tuber saved countless lives when a famine hit Europe in the 1770s.
So today, many visitors to Frederick’s grave in Potsdam, Germany honor the king by laying a potato on the granite headstone. The gesture says, ‘We were wrong and you were right, old boy. Thank you.’
With that story in mind, it’s worth asking the question:
What would you wish future generations to lay on your own grave to remember you by? What will be your potato?
People leave decks of cards on Houdini’s grave in Machpelah Cemetery, in Queen’s, NY – a nod to the magician’s simple gift of astonishment. At Elvis’s gravesite in Memphis, it’s teddy bears. They’re a song and a transitional object, like the man himself.
Golf balls left on Bobby Jones’s grave in Atlanta, and Campbell’s soup cans on Andy Warhol’s grave in Pennsylvania, are tokens to high-level artistic accomplishment, but they’re impersonal, and therefore imperfect.
The best “potatoes,” I would argue, acknowledge a tight fit between the contributions of the deceased and the values of the giver. People leave maple leaves by the tombstone of former Canadian Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in Wakefield, Quebec. He gave Canada a new flag, replacing the red British ensign with the maple-leaf — a symbol of our budding identity as a nation, free of Mum’s apron strings.
After my father died, the family tried to think of an apt tribute. How would we remember him? How would he want to be remembered? Dad’s most powerful legacy, I believe, wasn’t any single new idea in his field (he was a psychologist). It was the countless daily kindnesses he showed people outside of his work. People remembered these gestures long after Dad had forgotten them. He was just a nice guy. That’s a tricky quality to find a symbol for. The best we could come was a tulip. It’s one of the rare flowers that continues to grow after it’s cut.
Now, there is a time to think about your potato, and a time not to think about it, as Ecclesiastes almost said. The current historical moment seems a ripe time to think about it. Studies show that the more under siege we feel, the more we tend to want to hunker down and pull our values over top of us like a lead blanket. After we’re gone, those values — the example of our life as demonstrated by our choices — will be all that’s left of us.
Some people will find the whole idea of “legacy thinking” suspicious. It can look like a calculating dodge. Who hasn’t heard of the billionaire mogul who made a dirty fortune and is now, late in life, writing a huge check to a university or a hospital, trying to put himself on the right side of karma?
But that’s not where most of us are coming from when we think about our legacy. The impulse is often generous. Say you decide to downsize and get rid of a lot of stuff. And say you choose as your guide not Marie Kondo’s decluttering bible but The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. Now you’re making your choices differently. It’s no longer about you. Instead of trashing everything that doesn’t “spark joy,” you trash everything you can’t imagine your kid having any use for. Your gift to those you love, then, is to leave them things that might spark joy in them. (Or at least something they can get a decent price for on eBay.)
By and large, thinking about our own death makes us better people in life, the research suggests.
In a 2015 study in Psychological Science, Columbia University psychologist Lisa Zaval found that subjects who had been primed to reflect on how they’d like to be remembered gave more generously to an environmental charity than those who hadn’t been. Musing on our own demise tends to kindle an interest in leaving the world a bit better for future generations. Legacy concerns are pretty natural. They may even be hardwired.
So What will be your potato? is a question wrapped in a question. What it’s really asking is, What will you do in this life that will elicit more than a “She was a good person”? That will make people say, This is what she stood for. This thing.
And then go looking for that thing, and set in on top of you.