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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

What might your legacy be?

Occasional contributor Terry Martin, part of Caraway, supporting Anna Chaplains in Southampton, has been reflecting on the rich concept of 'legacy'.


Although the word legacy has a particular legal meaning as “a gift of property, especially personal property, as money, by will; a bequest”, I am here concerned with a more general definition as “anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor”.

In her article What is Legacy? Susan V. Bosak1 of the Legacy Project wrote that the concept of legacy is a powerful life tool for all ages and a catalyst for social change and is about learning from the past, living in the present, and building for the future. It is 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. 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. It helps us decide the kind of life we want to live and the kind of world we want to live in.

When we start thinking about legacies, no matter what our age or state of health, we take stock of our possessions, of our accomplishments and disappointments, what we've learned from what we've done in the past, what we're doing now, and what we still hope to do. With varying levels of awareness, we also inevitably reflect on the people, work, ideas, commitments, and social institutions that have given our lives shape and meaning.

A legacy may take many forms – children, grandchildren, a business, an ideal, a book, a community, a home, some piece of ourselves. A primary challenge is living in the present, making choices about the present, but with the awareness of an uncertain future. 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 can still try to live a good and meaningful life.

There needs to be both a seasonal rhythm and a generational rhythm. Part of this involves planning, but part also involves an intuitive sense of a natural rhythm. Aging is seen as the grandfather and grandmother time of human life. Community is vital for remembering the past and fulfilling responsibilities to the future.

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. What we need, particularly as we grow older, is a sense of wisdom. The essence of wisdom is in knowing what we don't know, in the appreciation that knowledge is fallible. Wisdom accumulates with age.

Wisdom grows only through accepting our life as the life that had to be and is the product of resolve – resolving the issues of the past combined with tolerance toward our own family past and our choices. It combines an emotional integration of the past, a philosophical attitude toward life, and acceptance of our own mortality without despair.

Wise people recognize their own limitations and the limitations of life. But they also see possibilities and hope. Hope is 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. Playwright and Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel said:

'Hope is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the conviction that something is moral and right and just and therefore you fight regardless of the consequences.'

Hope does not extinguish suffering but sustains the belief that there can be an end to it, if not in our own life, then in the future, and so hope propels you into action.

Leaving a legacy is a human need. It is in part selfish – we want to feel immortal. The idea of leaving something behind that will live forever is appealing. We also want to feel like we matter in the vast sea of humanity. By connecting with those at the beginning of our lives, we do complete a full circle in life's journey and leave some of ourselves – our experiences, ideas, values, and personal example – in the minds and hearts of others. But leaving a legacy also has an altruistic component. If we don't leave a positive legacy, what kind of society are we building? What kind of world are we leaving behind? What are we passing on to our children and grandchildren?

Older people have experienced something that younger people cannot: a personal sense of the entire life course. They can offer the young a glimpse of that life course.

For adults, legacy means hoping for the future. It means developing and passing on a timeless part of ourselves. We feel valued and useful no matter how old we get. We remember our priorities and make life choices based on them. We come to terms with our accomplishments and our disappointments. We create personal meaning and purpose. We realize that as we do our bit in the grand scheme of things, our tiny gestures multiply in significance. We understand that the world we leave behind is the world our children and children's children inherit. We know that we have a moral obligation to help make the future a little bit better than the past.

In her article Want to Leave a Legacy? Be a Mentor, How to make a positive impact that would keep you alive in the memories and lives of others, Jane E. Brody2 wrote:

'More and more people are living 20 or 30 years beyond traditional retirement age. Do they all want to spend those golden years watching TV, playing cards or golf, reading, or traveling? Or might some prefer a more productive and meaningful old age, one that could enrich them physically, mentally, and socially?'

In an interview, Mark Freedman3 said that “Older people are uniquely suited for a mentoring role. The critical skills for nurturing relationships — emotional regulation and empathy — blossom as we age”.

The initiative Now Teach creates an avenue for retired professionals to impart their hard-earned life lessons to those starting out on life’s often challenging journey. The program’s motto: “You’ve had a successful career. Now do something more important. Now teach.”

Brody urges older people to consider becoming a member of a kind of intergenerational Peace Corps. It’s a great way to secure a legacy that eases the pain of knowing that all lives must come to an end. One possibility is to become a Foster Grandparent in a US national program that engages older adults with limited incomes to serve as role models, mentors, and friends to children with exceptional or special needs.


2. Jane E. Brody (2019) Want to Leave a Legacy? Be a Mentor, How to make a positive impact that would keep you alive in the memories and lives of others.

3. Marc Freedman (2018) How to Live Forever: The Enduring Power of Connecting the Generations

Terry Martin




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