How will you be remembered?
When your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and beyond talk about you, what will they say? Who is the person they will see when they examine the afterimage you have left behind?
Think of your own recollections of those who have preceded you: family members, friends, co-workers and colleagues, public figures great and small, the well- and the little-known. What remains of them when they are no longer here?
Possessions are disbursed, projects taken over, vital statistics catalogued away until all that’s left of who we were is who we were.
Our character.
Our character is our legacy. And our legacy is ultimately a moral legacy. It is the story of the good and bad things we did to and for other people.
Our bequest to tomorrow will not primarily be monetary or physical or even spiritual; that is, it won’t be something beyond this earthly plane. What we will grant to others in our absence is what we have granted to them in our presence: how we have met our obligations to them as family members, lovers, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow human beings.
As we proceed through life, this can be hard to see. The day-today responsibilities of making a living, raising a family, keeping up with the Joneses—not to mention rooting for one’s favorite sports team, downloading the latest Internet software, and keeping tabs on the extramarital dalliances of world leaders—incline us to perceive ourselves as individual, autonomous agents whose legacy is more about what we produced than how we lived. While few people really believe that whoever dies with the most toys wins, many of us do live our lives as if our acquisitions will have a more lasting effect than our offerings.
But when we look back upon things, it becomes obvious how much more enduring is what we give than what we take. And we can see better how our legacy—both individually and as a society—is most clearly forged by the moral choices we have made.
It doesn’t take a wise old person to recognize this; even a child (even a teenager!) can recognize how enduring our moral legacy really is—and how unforgettable are the choices that lead to its creation.
Here’s how I know.
When I was 13, my father, my best friend, and I toured the western United States in a Winnebago motor home. During the three weeks we spent together, I enjoyed all the father and son bonding experiences a kid could hope for. I got to drive our truck on the highway. I drank my first beer straight from the can. I learned that my old man, despite his age, education, and the respect that, as a medical doctor, the world accorded him, was an imperfect human being—just like me.
Yet what I remember most about our journey is a single experience, one that lasted no more than ten minutes but which has stuck with me for some three decades now. I have often wondered why the event implanted itself so deeply in my consciousness, and it is only by considering it in light of a moral legacy that I believe I have found my answer. The event, though short-lived and personal, has come to bear a significance that is both enduring and universal; in short, it has come to represent for me the moral legacy of our time.
The picture of what happened has yellowed with age, but if I focus my mind’s eye on the images, they return with the clarity of the mountain air which was their alembic.