I came across “What Will Be Your Legacy Month” on my events calendar for August last week. I paused and contemplated the meanings of the word, legacy, and how various people have interpreted it through the ages.
I thought of the major historical figures and how they might have imagined their own legacies. I’m fairly certain that people like Napoleon Bonaparte spent a great amount of time planning and consciously implementing a grand legacy. I think Adolf Hitler did, too. I doubt that Hitler actually thought civilized people would view his legacy as dark, supreme evil. His misguided fantasies were probably fueled by his desire to be remembered as the savior of civilization.
Another world leader who spent some time pondering what he would bequeath to the world, was John F. Kennedy. In fact, he once wrote, “The prudent heir takes careful inventory of his legacies and gives a faithful accounting to those whom he owes an obligation of trust.” Indeed, much of the world thinks Kennedy was a wise and benevolent leader.
There are the literary giants like William Shakespeare. His works are the acme of drama and poetry. H.G. Wells’ writings helped future generations expand their minds into new realms of discovery and thinking. Helen keller comes to mind as the writer of The Story Of My Life and also her charitable activity.
It occurred to me that the people who based their legacies on personal glory and egoism are remembered mainly for their harmful deeds. Hitler, and Stalin had enormous egos and their minds were full of hubris. They imagined that historians would place their names among the greatest leaders of humanity. Their imagined legacies were all about themselves, alone.
Meanwhile, people like Keller or Martin Luther King, Junior focused their thoughts and efforts on how they could make life better for other people. They knew that life had meaning in concepts and works far greater than themselves. Despite their sometimes flawed natures, the legacies of these people are inspirational and mostly positive.
We cannot help but judge famous and infamous historical and public figures. These days, we have various opinions about people like Bill Gates, who claims to not want a legacy. Just by running a huge, worldwide corporation, he has a legacy, anyway. Some of us might think of the Microsoft giant, others might also associate his name with his many generous charities. Regardless of whether he wants a legacy or not, he already has one.
The question remains for the vast majority of the rest of us. “What will be your legacy?” Just as we hope that our family and friends see us in a positive, good light, we hope that those who follow in our footsteps, after we die, will continue to be grateful to us for our helpful contributions. During those slow, undistracted, solitary afternoons, do we imagine people of the future associating our names with our contributions to society?
I think of old Mr. Engleswitsch down the street in one of my childhood neighborhoods. The only thing I know about him was that he always had to own the fanciest vehicle around. It seemed like his life revolved around his stuff. He was an otherwise unobtrusive character, but his legacy to my memory was his impeccable, black Lincoln Continental. On the other hand, my friend’s mother, who lived across the street from Mr. Engleswitsch, is associated with her impromptu generosity to newcomers in the area. Even though she wasn’t “well-to-do”, she was locally famous for her warmth and kindness. Both of these people were nice, law-abiding citizens, but I personally judge one’s legacy above the other’s.
Most people who have children and grandchildren have the very best intentions and wish to pass along a positive legacy to their descendants. Maybe there is some financial wealth to pass down or the knowledge that the children and grandchildren were deeply loved. There are many good things we hope will be our legacy.
Most of my life, I was not legally entitled to start a family with the ones I loved. Also, I do not have a great fortune to pass along to others. With these two factors in mind, I’ve often wondered about what my personal legacy will be. There have been two young men who were my protégés during the past two decades. Sometimes I wonder how my efforts of teaching and caring will be remembered by them. What about my more public life? Did my work have a beneficial effect on my audience? Has my humble advocacy of civil rights been helpful?
As time flows on, the memories of us will fade into obscurity. Will we be OK with that? Yet, did our speech and actions positively affect the course of history in some way? When I look at the lists of names on my family tree, I see my direct ancestors, their siblings, and distant relatives. I am a direct biological heir to some of them, so I am a small part of their legacy. I can study the photographs of my grandparents and great-grandparents and ponder what they passed down to my immediate family, my aunts, uncles, and cousins.
I can think about all of these things, yet I still wonder, in reality, what will be my own legacy?