Our legacy helps convey the value and meaning of our life

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Life section of the Annapolis Capital, Sunday October 1, 2017


I’m not talking about the dictionary definition, which says, “a gift or a bequest, that is handed down, endowed or conveyed from one person to another … a possession that is transmitted, inherited or received from a predecessor.”

Instead, I’m using the term legacy to refer to material as well as spiritual and other nonmaterial inheritances — everything from money and memories to values, virtues and patterns of behavior.

We all leave a legacy. Sometimes it’s a good legacy — positive, constructive, inspirational and beneficial to those left behind. Sometimes it’s a not so good legacy — debt, bitterness, fractured relationships, negativity.

Legacies take many forms. Businessman-turned-missionary Steve Saint said it this way: “Your story is the greatest legacy that you will leave to your friends. It’s the longest-lasting legacy you will leave to your heirs.”

Because each of us has a “story,” we all leave a legacy. It’s not an option.

Since 2011, I have interviewed more than 500 Americans about their bonus years — nearly half of whom live in the greater Annapolis area, including the Eastern Shore. My experience confirms what the Pew Research Center and other research organizations have found — namely, that leaving a legacy ranks near the top of the list of values (after good health and sound finances) that people want to achieve in their bonus years.

In the words of psychotherapist Marcia Lattanzi-Licht, a legacy “… affirms the value and meaning of a person’s life … threads of coherence” that are found in the narrative or story of a person’s time on this planet.

In our culture — when we meet someone new — we are likely to say somewhere early in the conversation, “What do you do?” What we do is certainly part of our legacy.

But when I lived in the culture of Australia, I learned that when you meet someone new, they seldom ask, “What do you do?” Instead, they are more likely to say, “What’s your story?” — a very different kind of question that leaves wide-open possibilities for a response.

Not only is the question “What’s your story?” different, but the answer is likely to transcend what you “do” and instead provide an insight to who you are, your “being” — a much deeper and more nuanced picture of yourself.

Indeed, how you choose to tell your story and what you emphasize provide a large window into your thinking.

Not only is the question “What’s your story?” different, but the answer is likely to transcend what you “do” and instead provide an insight to who you are, your “being” — a much deeper and more nuanced picture of yourself.

Indeed, how you choose to tell your story and what you emphasize provide a large window into your thinking.

American psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton talks about legacy as a way to symbolize the continuity between life and death or a way to overcome the finality of death — what he calls the “symbolic immortality” that most of us seek.

According to Lifton, there are many ways to think about and achieve this immortality. The four most interesting include:

Biological immortality: In the sense that our life “continues” through our children and grandchildren. Think about highly visible clans, such as the Kennedys and Rockefellers, passing on virtues and values in addition to wealth and status that are imputed rather than earned. Or consider the butcher, baker or candlestick maker who passes on a craft or trade or a small business in addition to virtues and values such as a hard-work ethic and taking personal responsibility.

Theological immortality: Reflecting the beliefs that many of us hold that there is life after death or a reunion of some kind with the divine. Think of heaven in the Abrahamic religions or the Hindu belief in reincarnation. An after-life is a key element of many of the world religions.

Works immortality: In the sense that our contributions to society, especially our material achievements, will not perish with our passing but will have an impact that endures beyond our life. For a scholar, that might mean that his works would change the world (think of Darwin, Freud, Einstein, Betty Friedan or Steve Jobs) or at least be a footnote 50 years after his passing. For a person of wealth, that might mean financing a school or hospital (think of the Sajak Pavilion at Anne Arundel Medical Center, the University of Maryland’s Robert Smith School of Business, the Applegate Bike Lane on Forest Drive or Paca House).

Natural immortality: The idea that when we die our bodies return to the earth where they are absorbed and used to support new life or nature itself. Think about roadkill and predators preying on dead animals or the ancient Scriptures that tell us “… for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:19).

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck interrupts his narrative in “East of Eden” at Chapter 34 to ask, “What is the world’s story … and what’s life all about?” His answer: “Human beings have only one story and that is the story of the struggle between virtue and vice …”

“A man,” he says, “after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life will have only the hard, clean questions: Was (my life) good or was it evil. Have I done well — or ill?”

Steinbeck says this struggle forms a constant tension in the choices we make in our daily life — day in and day out. “I am certain,” he continues, “that underneath their topmost layers of frailty, men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love,”

His conclusion is sobering: “When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and influence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.”

In “The Mature Mind,” author Gene Cohen writes that older people are driven by an urgent desire “to find larger meaning in the story of their lives through a process of review, summarizing, and giving back.” That’s what many aging specialists mean by “building a legacy.”

For many that might include writing an autobiography for the grandkids — to tell not just their own story but the story of their family, including their own children, the parents of the grands. For others that will mean spending time with the grands, telling them stories about everything from the big fish that got away and the soap box derby to their time in uniform, serving their country overseas.

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