Whenever a celebrated figure dies -- whether an artist, an entertainer, a famed activist or noble leader -- we out here in the land of non-celebrity, and even some who share that vaunted status -- speak much about the legacy of that person. We share their resume of beloved books, music, or films; we speak of their accomplishments in making the world a better place, their contributions to humanity, the simple pleasures they brought those who indulged in all they had to offer. We honor them by our attention to, and appreciation of, what they left behind. Their bequest. Their legacy.
Yet, oddly, we seem only to ascribe the concept of legacy to those who are famous. We speak rarely in those terms about the uncelebrated, the not-famous, the every-day folks unknown beyond their small circles. They are, or were, after all, just "regular people," certainly not meritorious enough to bear the burden of legacy... right?
I don't think so. In fact, I think the misassignation of "legacy" as a responsibility only of the famous and celebrated has done a grave disservice to our human race. It has deflected our understanding of, and excused our inattentiveness to, what's expected of each and every one of us in our short time on earth: leaving it better than we found it.
But who expects that of me? I'm just a regular person. Nobody cares what I leave behind, or what I do or say. Nobody will remember me beyond my family. Nobody pays attention or cares about what I contribute to the human race! I'm not obligated to the world. I'm just trying to survive, and as long as I take care of my family, keep my kids from going off the rails, don't kill anybody, maybe have a little fun, that's good enough for me.
Those are statements actually said to me, and they do illustrate common trains of thought. Which is understandable. Not everyone wants to get all "grand" about how they live their lives. They don't necessarily want to think that big, extend their view so globally, burden themselves with a higher consciousness that might demand more awareness of consequences and their lasting effect.
But if that paragraph is the totality of what you think, then you might have misunderstood the definition of legacy. The fact is, whether you're thinking about it or not, value it or not, your legacy is being created, either consciously or unconsciously, with or without your curation. Why would you abdicate that responsibility? Don't you want some involvement in how you're remembered, what those you touch think of you or frame your life?
Frankly, I've come to believe that ignoring the task of legacy (or allowing it to formulate without conscious thought) has contributed greatly (or not so greatly, as it were) to the toxification, the dumbing down, the weakened striving for and inarguable lessening of what have long been considered desirable human traits: integrity, compassion, humanity, generosity, honor, and open-mindedness.
Instead, we live in a world where too many presume they're invisible enough to not be held responsible for their actions. A world where the self-absorbed think nothing about the negativity they leave in their wake, the ugliness they inject into their sphere. People who care so little about "making the world a better place," or "living an admirable life, even if for no one but oneself," that they pillage and plunder with impunity:
They leave tweets of incomprehensible stupidity that sometimes have lasting and powerful effect. They engage in thoughtless, destructive email exchanges as if "no one's watching" or hacking hadn't become normalized in a world of zero privacy. They forget that screenshots can immortalize deleted threads, hateful speech, and knee-jerk reactions later regretted. They spend precious hours of life sharing hateful dialogue and trolling those who might not share their beliefs. They bully and attack with little concern for who they hurt or what negativity they foment. They steal art, denigrate kinder people, and make any online exchange a brutal gauntlet.
And they do all this with impunity, because they're either hiding behind a screen name, they're convinced they won't be found out; they think they're entitled or above reproach, or they simply don't care. They don't care if their persona, their name, their identity, the essence of who they are is attached to something heinous and hideous. They don't care about legacy.
But they should.
Whatever you might believe about spiritual life, life beyond the physical realm, or the existence of energy and consciousness, the fact remains that what we create has impact. On us, our families, our friends, the communities where we live, the countries to which we pledge our allegiance; the global alliance we call the human race. It doesn't matter if you're famous, notorious, large, small, or in-between, you have impact. Visible, not visible, felt, not felt; ignored, denied, or dismissed... you have impact. That's your legacy. Even if you're someone who doesn't give a hoot about what that impact is, the way you affect and influence your children, your personal circle, the world, anything and everything you touch IS your legacy. You should care about that.
Because there can be no purpose in life more important than making one's imprint of value. We may not be able to control whether we succeed, gain fame and fortune, or become the kind of person whose death inspires Facebook posts, but that can't be the criteria. The criteria for any person's legacy is simply this:
Make everything you say, do, write, create, share, influence, or affect be something your children, your mother, your father, your spouse, the people you care most about -- YOU -- would be unequivocally proud of. Do no harm. Control your anger, your hate, and the urge to damage or demean. Embrace the simplest of rules like "do unto others." Stoke empathy at every turn by considering how your words and actions would feel to you ... then act accordingly.
If nothing else, do think about if you were famous and people were talking about you after you died. What would they say? What would they celebrate? How would you be remembered?
Morbid? Maybe. But sometimes we have to jar ourselves into understanding more clearly the impact we do have. Little things add up, good and bad, and what you leave behind really ought to be something meaningful.
The thesaurus offers one synonym for "legacy" that I particularly like: GIFT. My mother taught me that one always leaves a gift when one is a guest somewhere. And given the brief, transient nature of life, I'd suggest we are all guests in every moment we live.... hence, gifts should be regularly left. Which confirms my thesis:
Your legacy is your gift. Think about the gifts you leave.
Man/dog photo by LDW