Legacy is about life and living. It's about learning from the past, living in the present, and building for the future.
Where do you think it's best to plant a young tree: a clearing in an old-growth forest or an open field? Ecologists tell us that a young tree grows better when it's planted in an area with older trees. The reason, it seems, is that the roots of the young tree are able to follow the pathways created by former trees and implant themselves more deeply. Over time, the roots of many trees may actually graft themselves to one another, creating an intricate, interdependent foundation hidden under the ground. In this way, stronger trees share resources with weaker ones so that the whole forest becomes healthier. That's legacy: an interconnection across time, with a need for those who have come before us and a responsibility to those who come after us.
Legacy is fundamental to what it is to be human. Research shows that without a sense of working to create a legacy, adults lose meaning in their life. Exploring the idea of legacy offers a glimpse not only into human relationships and building strong communities, but also the human spirit.
The idea of legacy may remind us of death, but it's not about death. Being reminded of death is actually a good thing, because death informs life. It gives you a perspective on what's important. But legacy is really about life and living. It helps us decide the kind of life we want to live and the kind of world we want to live in.
The giving and receiving of legacies can evoke, all at once, the entire spectrum of basic human emotions: hope, longing, regret, anxiety, fear, dread, jealousy, bitterness, rage, a sense of failure, a sense of accomplishment, pride, contentment, joy, gratitude, humility, love. When you start thinking about legacies, no matter what your age or state of health, you take stock – of your possessions, and also of your accomplishments and disappointments. You take stock of what you've learned from what you've done in the past, what you're doing now, and what you still hope to do. With varying levels of awareness, individuals also inevitably reflect on the people, work, ideas, commitments, and social institutions that have given their lives shape and meaning.
Most of us will not be an Albert Einstein, with our name and accomplishments remembered forever in the history books. But that does not lessen our need to create some meaning in our lives, to have what we've done and thought live on after us, to be remembered in some way.
From a purely practical standpoint, if you don't pass on your life experience by leaving a legacy, the wisdom you've gained through decades of difficult learning will disappear as your physical body wears out.
A legacy may take many forms – children, grandchildren, a business, an ideal, a book, a community, a home, some piece of ourselves. Our legacy naturally intrigues us. It's perfectly understandable that we would want to know how the world will remember us after we're gone. How many of us will be surprised? How many of us are living our lives so that our legacy reflects all that we truly hold most near and dear? How many of us are living with integrity and courage?
Most of us do the best we can. And that's all anyone can ask. The Legacy Project is about helping you do the very best you can.
Helping you do the best you can involves thinking about your life map. If you don't have some sort of life map, you end up wandering around hopelessly lost. Some people chart the road better than others, but I've found that most people's maps are incomplete and insufficient.
What is the place of a human being in this world – when you're young? when you're old? How do you live a full and meaningful life? Each of us answers those questions differently.
A primary challenge of human beings is living in the present, making choices about the present, but with the awareness of an uncertain future. The most extreme example of this dilemma is knowledge of our own mortality. But life is full of occasions when we have to make important decisions with limited information. The fundamental indeterminacy of the future is an essential quality of human experience. We can never know exactly what's in store for us, yet we still try to live a good and meaningful life.
No one can survive living simply from moment to moment, denying the future. There has to be a weekly rhythm and a connection to something bigger. There has to be a seasonal rhythm, and a generational rhythm. Part of this involves planning, but part also involves an intuitive sense of a natural rhythm. There are ripples of rhythms within rhythms, some things being able to be achieved in a short time span, others perhaps taking years. It's about getting your bearings in eternity.
Said Goethe, "Choose well. Your choice is brief, and yet endless." We don't live in a culture that thinks much about eternity and feels connected to it. Within the sacred circle of life as conceived by Native Americans, different periods of time are set aside for particular purposes. You're expected to recognize the changing of the seasons, to know them as natural progressions in time and to use them to continue to live life. These changing seasons of meaning in the circle of life are understood with the same certainty that you accept the progression from spring to summer to fall. Aging is seen as the grandfather and grandmother time of human life. If people have been shown by example the various ages of life across the years, it's more likely that they will recognize and welcome the whole of life and see it in the context of the greater whole. Community is vital for remembering the past and fulfilling responsibilities to the future. Native Americans recognize the value of maintaining the participation of older adults. Elders fulfill the role of storytellers, teaching children where their people came from and what their culture expects of them.
Expanding our time perspective is a useful way of understanding all kinds of events and issues. It becomes particularly useful when we're trying to understand something as complex as what's going on in the world at large. So many changes are taking place, in so many places on the planet, that looking at what's in this week's newspaper isn't much help in getting true knowledge. It's too much about life in the sensational moment to sensational moment. It's ironic that a sense of history was much greater among the ancients than it is today. The people of India could think in terms of kalpas, which consisted of four thousand million years of human reckoning. The Babylonian tradition, later adapted by the Greeks and by medieval Christendom, included the concept of the Great Year, generally used to refer to a 36,000-year cycle, after which history was thought to repeat itself. On the one hand are such great sweeps of time that individual human events seem insignificant; on the other is such a brief present that it's gone before we know it.
Between these extremes there lies a medium range of time which is neither too long nor too short for immediate comprehension, and which has an organic quality that gives it relevance for the present moment. Social scientist Elise Boulding calls it the 200-year present. That present begins 100 years ago today, on the day of birth of those among us who are centenarians. Its other boundary is the hundredth birthday of the babies born today. This present is a continuously moving moment, always reaching out 100 years in either direction from the day we are in. We are linked with both boundaries of this moment by the people among us whose life began or will end at one of those boundaries, five generations each way in time. It is our space, one that we can move around in directly in our own lives and indirectly by touching the lives of young and old around us. If you use this to think about the world, it's easier to get a grasp of events which can't be properly understood in terms of what's going on this minute, this month, this year.
How we respond to the fundamental uncertainty of life and the immenseness of eternity shapes everything we do and is driven in part by how we think about our place in the world, our sense of identity. Some people think of identity as a kind of answer, an ideal or end-state, achieved progressively through an ongoing examination of one's character and qualities. Others see identity as a question, an open-ended journey that's always shifting and changing. For them, the development of self requires a kind of "enlightened indeterminacy" – a willingness to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty as an integral part of everyday life. For all kinds of people, however, identity is a significant accomplishment. Coping with the uncertainties of your place in the world is key to sanity. Human emotions are also largely determined by our beliefs about the future, by our degree of confidence that things will turn out well for us. The goal is stability without falling into the trap of "certainty," of believing there is one absolute truth.
What our world needs, and what we need, particularly as we grow older, is a sense of wisdom. Paul Baltes of the Max Planck Institute in Berlin has spent his life investigating wisdom. He defines wisdom as "a state of knowledge about the human condition, about how it comes about, which factors shape it, how one deals with difficult problems, and how one organizes one's life in such a manner that when we are old, we judge it to be meaningful."
The essence of wisdom is in knowing what you don't know, in the appreciation that knowledge is fallible. It's the balance between knowing and doubting. "Wise" action involves the way in which you hold knowledge and put it to use. A "wise" decision implies a "best" solution – a value-laden judgment. It tries to understand the ultimate consequences of events in a holistic, systemic way.
Wisdom brings together your experience, ability to think, and emotional maturity to make good decisions at an individual and societal level. Wisdom enables a person to adapt to the tasks of everyday life. It's about getting pleasure from health, satisfaction from work, and good use out of wealth. But wisdom is also what will enable us to deal with the increasingly complex problems facing humanity. Wisdom isn't simply for wise people, philosophers, and psychologists. It's for all people and for the future of the world.
Most of today's most influential thinkers believe that wisdom accumulates with age. And while research indicates that some mental functioning like memory may decline with advanced age, wisdom can still flourish apart from other mental functions. Research also confirms that most wise individuals don't think of themselves as possessing any special powers of wisdom. The more they learn, the less they know for certain.
But wisdom isn't something that happens automatically as the result of age. Hard-won self-knowledge is an essential source of wisdom. Wisdom grows only through accepting your life as the life that had to be and is the product of resolve – resolving the issues of the past combined with tolerance toward your own family past and your choices. It combines an emotional integration of the past, a philosophical attitude toward life, and acceptance of your own mortality without despair.
Said F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." The "wiser" we become, the more paradox we find. And yet we must continue to live in this world and make our way through this paradox.
Generally, wise persons are thought to project the consequences of a decision far into the future: "I will plant seeds to grow in springs I will not see." To be wise is to have an orientation in time that examines the past for relevant knowledge, experience, and precedent; that examines the present context of the problem to be solved; and that projects into the future the long-range effects.
Wise people recognize their own limitations and the limitations of life. But they also see possibilities and hope.
We all need hope, especially now with everything that is happening on the world stage. What is hope? People use the word hope in many contexts. You might think of the three virtues – faith, hope, and charity. Used in this sense, hope is a quality that imbues an individual with a certain grace in the face of adversity. We are said to have "high hopes." We "hope" something will or will not happen. We say we are "hopeful" about the future. When we use the word "hope" in these ways, it's synonymous with saying "want" or "expectation." What we're really saying is, "I want something to turn out the way I would like." Hope ends up denoting a rather passive, "wait and see attitude" to the desired goal. It isn't an active process used to reach objectives.
The concept of hope I'm talking about as part of the Legacy Project is more active, more dynamic. Hope is a process, a process that can be learned and pursued. Hope looks at what is and comes up with a plan for achieving what can be. Hope projects alternate realities and is rooted in some deep-seated need to believe that the world can be other than it is.
Said playwright and Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel:
Vaclav Havel, the 20th century poet of democracy, gave hope not only to millions of people in Eastern Europe, but to people around the world who believe that human rights are universal. People who believe that they can and should fight for human rights and help people in their community and around the world.
"The Dark Years" by Nelson Mandela
Mandela describes how authorities attempted to "exploit every weakness, demolish every initiative, negate all signs of individuality-all with the idea of stamping out that spark that makes each of us human and each of us who we are." How can individuals promote the opposite in each other-that is, how can individuals or authorities encourage "that spark that makes people human and each of us who we are"?
Why would Mandela and his ANC colleagues go to such lengths to get news of the outside, like passing it from cell to cell on scraps of toilet paper? How does a sense of political isolation foster despair, while being connected with an engaged community encourages hope? How do you break down your political isolation?
Most of us will not face the hardships of imprisonment like Nelson Mandela, but in what other ways can we be imprisoned? What qualities does Mandela suggest help human beings surmount even the greatest of challenges?
Loeb writes, "Those who make us believe anything's possible, however, and fire our imagination over the long haul, are often the ones who've have survived the bleakest of circumstances. It's the men and women who have every reason to despair, but don't, who may have the most to teach us, not only about how to hold true to our beliefs, but about how such a life can bring about seemingly impossible social change." Do you agree or disagree with this why? What lessons can we draw from people facing the most difficult situations for our own more modest challenges?
How can courage be multiplied? Can you think of a time in your life or a situation you've witnessed when courage multiplied? Explain.
"It was ANC policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies." What was the point of this policy? Have you ever reached out to someone with whom you radically disagree on an issue about which you felt passionately? What was it like?
"An Orientation of the Heart" by Vaclav Havel
In the beginning of his essay, Havel describes how hope is "a state of mind, not a state of the world." And he distinguishes hope from optimism. How would you distinguish the belief that things will turn out well from the deeper sense that guides us even when we are unsure of the results of our actions. Have you ever faced a personal situation where you acted even though the outcomes were uncertain?
What states of mind and approaches to the world do you think nurture hope? Do you know someone who exemplifies a hopeful approach to the world, and not just an optimistic one? Describe this person.
Have you ever heard people label activists "exhibitionistic" or say they were just trying "to draw attention to themselves." What was your response when you realized this same charge was being levied at a later successful democracy movement that challenged a Communist dictatorship? Did this make you question the way our own society so quickly dismisses our own political dissenters?
Would you agree with Milan Kundera that the petition circulated by Havel and others was futile? Why or why not? Compare Havel's description of people being brought together to challenge the regime in an apparently futile context with Paul’s friend Lisa standing in the rain and realizing she'd later helped inspire famed baby doctor, Ben Spock. How do these examples suggest that the impact of our actions may only be clear in hindsight?
How did the petition help keep the prisoners going? Have you ever witnessed a situation where the supportive actions of others help courageous individuals keep acting? Do you agree with Havel's judgment that small acts of resistance can still matter--even if they don't have the desired immediate outcome?
Since the dictatorship was still in power when Havel wrote his essay (and according to global consensus likely to remain so), what allowed him to see the cracks in the walls of their seemingly unchallengeable rule? Is it possible for us to look similarly beyond the horizon to see what might be possible in changing unjust situations in our own political context? What does it mean to "make a way out of no way"?
Havel describes resistance against a dictatorship that seeks to control every aspect of daily life in a way that prevents questioning the prevailing authorities. Does our dominant culture ever function in a similar way? If so, how? If much our culture avoids talking about the real and urgent questions of our time, what would a culture look like that challenges this? What signs of it do you see in today's America?
“Reluctant Activists” by Mary Pipher
What does Roberts mean when he says that he doesn't think hope is "about the future as much as it is about the present," about our actions and choices? Compare this framework to that of Vaclav Havel, and to the other essays in this section.