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Find out more about educator, author, and Legacy Project Chair
Susan V. Bosak

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WHAT IS LEGACY?

by Susan V. Bosak
Chair, Legacy Project

The concept
of legacy is a powerful life tool for all ages and a catalyst for social change

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.


Your Life At This Moment

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.


In Search of Wisdom

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.


Holding on to 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:

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 is the quality of character that sustains belief under seemingly impossible situations – when kindness seems impossible or poverty inevitable or when the world seems cruel and life unbearable. People encounter sources of hope in the imagination, in the words and examples of others, and in witness to the natural wonders around us every day. Hope does not extinguish suffering but sustains the belief that there can be an end to it, if not in your own life, then in the future. And so hope propels you into action.


It's All Connected

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 their lives, we do complete a full circle in life's journey and leave some of our "selves" – 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?

Norman Cousins wrote an intriguing piece related to legacy:

What is the eternal and ultimate problem of a free society?

It is the problem of the individual who thinks that one man cannot possibly make a difference in the destiny of that society.

It is the problem of the individual who doesn't really understand the nature of a free society or what is required to make it work.

It is the problem of the individual who has no comprehension of the multiplying power of single but sovereign units.

It is the problem of the individual who regards the act of pulling a single lever in a voting booth in numerical terms rather than historical terms.

It is the problem of the individual who has no real awareness of the millions of bricks that had to be put into place, one by one, over many centuries, in order for him to dwell in the penthouse of freedom. Nor does he see any special obligation to those who continue building the structure or to those who will have to live in it after him, for better or worse.

It is the problem of the individual who recognizes no direct relationship between himself and the decisions made by government in his name. Therefore, he feels no special obligation to dig hard for the information necessary to an understanding of the issues leading to those decisions.

In short, freedom's main problem is the problem of the individual who takes himself lightly historically.

This is where the personal becomes political. Through legacy, "me" becomes "we" (and the irony is that "me" actually becomes more in the process). "We" encompasses past and future, old and young, and the society we create and perpetuate. "Society is indeed a contract," said Edmund Burke, a British writer and member of Parliament. "It becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."

We are all, young and old, part of a larger community, a community that must remember its history to build its future. Community exists before you are born and remains after you are gone. Each part of your life, from childhood to adulthood to older adulthood, has a part in taking in or passing on the lessons of the past in order to create a better future.


What Does It All Mean?

There are two basic kinds of problems in life: What are we going to do about it? and What does it mean?

Meaning is a notoriously vague concept. Yet the very nature of being human means we venture into the web of what meaning is to try to understand ourselves and our life. We want it all to "make sense." Some may say that these "big" questions are just too heavy. It's better to just forget about them and live your life. The problem with that is that we all eventually face moments of desperation in which we must deal with the big questions and extreme emotional pain – moments when we look into the mirror and don't recognize ourselves, times of personal loss, or horrible world events that seem incomprehensible.

Communication scholar W. Barnett Pearce puts it this way:

Human beings are confronted with certain "facts of life." We are born, we mature, and then we die. While alive, we eat, excrete, and interact with our fellows. And we invest all of these "facts" with meaning by placing them within stories. Making "meaning" is not an optional activity in which persons sometimes engage; it is part of what it means to be a human being.

In other words, we are fundamentally meaning-making creatures, meaning is what you make it, and meaning takes shape in the stories you create about life, yours in particular. Meaning also involves a paradox: at one and the same time it involves living and thinking about living.

In an age when there is growing dissatisfaction with the alienation, complexity, and discontinuities of modern, industrial societies, we wonder where we can find meaning. The idea that life derives meaning from the connections between generations, and a grounding in legacy, is an attractive alternative.


The Bigger Picture

We are all bound by the life course. It is the human condition. Looking from the very start of your life at your entire life course is not an easy thing, but it is increasing critical. The young have choices to make that have lifelong implications. Today's children have more choices, and more difficult choices, to make than their parents when they were young. Decisions are thrust upon them at earlier and earlier ages, and have serious and long-lasting consequences. 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.

At the beginning, we are what we are given. By mid-life, as we make our way in the world, we come to understand that we can be what we have been given and what we can create. Toward the end of life, we must understand that we must give to others, so that when we leave this world we are what we have been given, have created, and have passed on.

Historically, the day of a person's death has been seen as the most important day of their life, the day against which their entire life is measured. "Our critical day," elaborated John Donne, "is not so much the very day of our death but the whole course of our life."

We have an awareness of chronological age because it's very much a structural feature of the way we've organized our society – from education to the workplace to nursing homes. But a person's activities throughout their life are, to a significant degree, ordered according to a series of cultural norms, patterns, expectations, and rules. There are actually four dimensions of time that influence the flow of individuals through the life course: life time (chronological age); family time (events and roles within the family); social time (cultural expectations); and historical time (socio-cultural era).

A life course perspective takes into consideration all four dimensions of time and highlights the ways that events and decisions that occur early in life can have persistent effects on the structure and quality of our life at later points in time. There is an intersection of social and historical factors with personal biography. A life course perspective also emphasizes the lifelong nature of development and asserts that our understanding of any point in the life course is enhanced by taking into account an individual's past history and future expectations.

In practical terms, a life course perspective is about helping children learn to make critical, life-determining decisions. It is about helping the young extend and enhance their own lives. It is also about developing a sensitivity to the needs and concerns of the aging population. It involves recognizing that people now have many more choices across the various phases or turning points of their life than they did at the turn of the twentieth century.


What Legacy Means to Children and to Adults

The world isn't connected by molecules. It's connected by stories, traditions, memories, hopes, and dreams. We are connected by the legacies passed down from those who came before us and the legacies we pass down to those who come after us.

Said English writer Dorothy Sayers, "Paradoxical as it may seem, to believe in youth is to look backward; to look forward, we must believe in age."

For children, legacy means learning from the past. It separates the timeless from the transient. Children have a feeling of security and continuity that comes from knowing that there are adults who care about them. They come to realize that we all face choices in our lives, often difficult ones, which helps them prepare for whatever may come. They start developing a life plan as they see their life as a whole. Learning about the whole of life as well as its end also helps them establish their values and priorities. And instead of directly telling children all of this, we need to tell them our life stories and our choices and how we made our decisions. That's the way you get children to learn from you and about you.

For adults, legacy means hoping for the future. It means developing and passing on a timeless part of yourself. 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 an obligation to help make the future a little bit better than the past.

For both young and old, the power of legacy enables us to live fully in the present. You understand that you are part of a larger community, a community that must remember its history to build its future. There is caring combined with conscience. There is also wisdom to be found in each other – linking action and reflection to deal with complex problems.

Legacy is very much about life and living.

© SV Bosak, www.legacyproject.org

Susan V. Bosak

Susan V. Bosak

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