What will I leave behind when I'm gone? What will be my legacy?
I'm not sure what is a "normal" amount to think about such things, but I do think about them.
Perhaps losing my father at a young age and then attending his funeral initiated some premature awareness that people could die and that there might be some variability in how they are thought of and remembered. As I came to terms with the existence of my own mortality, I more than occasionally wondered what might be said of me at my funeral, and how I would be known from that point on.
Of course it's an incredible privilege to even think about legacy, and dwelling too long on it can bring out the worst impulses of ego and self-importance. To have had incredible opportunities and access to resources over the course of my life and then still try to control how the world works even after I die...well, that would be crazy.
So I try to use any "legacy thinking" as a way to keep me focused, especially on the important things I want to do in life and the kinds of relationships I want to have, instead of as a vehicle for self-inflation or unnatural self-preservation. I also use it to keep perspective:
On a geologic time scale, I won't really have any personal legacy. I will be one of many billions of people who lived in a time when humans inflicted substantial, mostly harmful changes across the planet, killing off many other forms of life while altering the climate, poisoning the water, bringing up oil and putting down trash and toxic chemicals, and just generally making a mess of things while we wait for the sun to implode and swallow the Earth.
Hopefully I also live in a time where a shift in human attitudes about the planet we occupy eventually leads to some reversal of those trends, and maybe our descendants will despise us slightly less than they could have otherwise. But as much as I want to believe that I personally can make a difference in reducing this harm, I don't currently hold out hope that my lifestyle choices will be worth much when measured across the millennia.
Still, I feel a strong responsibility to the community of life that surrounds me and the generations of beings (human and non-human) who will come after. I want to bring more good into the world than harm, and be an active part in (or at least get out of the way of) the solutions that improve life instead of a proponent of the systems that destroy life. And I hope that in some small way, my attempts to live that out have meaning in the bigger picture.
Professional and Political
On a shorter time scale, I've gone through a lot of transition in what I thought was possible for my legacy, especially professionally. Like many (Western? American? Male?) children I was always encouraged to believe that I could do anything, and so becoming President or amassing global fame and fortune always seemed just a few good decisions away while growing up. I've had political aspirations for a long time, but those have faded as my thinking has grown cloudy around what models of political engagement and activism actually work, and whether I belong in any of them. I'm trying to figure that out, but in the meantime I try to strategically give time and money to (mostly local) candidates and causes that live out my values.
When I first co-founded a tech business at the age of 19, I also had big dreams for making a mark on the world through some kind of software creation. Eventually I found much joy and contentment in doing my best to run a small business that tried to take care of its employees and clients, and produced some excellent work along the way. And more recently I've adjusted to a professional identity that involves being a small part of a growing company that's doing things of which I'm proud.
Just as I may yet have some political future ahead, I don't feel like I'm "done" with my professional advancement or that I've used up all of the creative energy that might go toward entrepreneurship. But I have some figuring out to do first, and I'm in a good place for now. If my professional legacy ended up being the work I've already done - the problems I've solved, the tools I've built, the projects I've led - I think that would be okay.
Community and Philanthropy
When my grandfather, my dad's dad (pictured at top with a younger me), was nearing the end of his life, I listened as he contemplated what would become of the modest savings that he and my grandmother had put together. He said several times that he wanted to make sure a good portion of it went to the benefit of the community, whether it was the neighborhood they lived in, the work their church was doing, or the needs of broader city. I was inspired by that thinking and it's continued to inform my own, about what I can do for my community and what I will leave behind for it when I'm gone.
In my life so far that's mostly meant a lot of volunteer service through my work on not-for-profit boards, my company's donations of its own time and financial resources to various local causes, and personal financial contributions to organizations that I believe are doing good work. If enough of my own savings is intact when I'm gone then some portion of it will go to some institutions that I think have an exceptional ability to spark change and community improvement.
No one's going to name a building or a road after me, but I feel like I've been able to make a difference in the lives of my neighbors and fellow residents, and I hope that the places I've called home will be better in some way for it.
Friends and Family
When I think of the legacy I might leave with my friends and family, I remember the Maya Angelou quote:
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Obviously, I would like to think that the people I have been fortunate enough to call friends and to have as members of my family would have fond memories of positive feelings about me when I go.
I actually used to work hard at that, struggling with thinking of these relationships as only being as meaningful and "successful" as they are at present day or in the context of the most recent interaction. Now, I am learning to accept that the care, connection and meaning I give and receive from friends and family can come and go in waves, sometimes with very long periods of time in between cycles. I am learning to forgive myself for not always being a great friend or family member, instead trying to be the best I can be in the context of all the things that matter to me in the world.
Most importantly, I'm trying to be as present and open to friends or family members in the moments we are together, cherishing that time for what it is on its own instead of what it might mean for the larger arc of the relationship.
Spouse and Father
I can't say I have any clear and driving model for what kind of spouse and father I want to be. As I've written about before, my understanding of fatherhood comes through a complex and mostly wonderful series of examples and father figures present at various times in my life. Even today there are other fathers who I watch and learn from as I try to be a caring, loving, substantial presence in my daughter's life.
I believe I will be content if she grows up to think of me as a person who brings her joy and makes her laugh, helps her understand how the world works, and challenges her to be the best version of herself, whatever that might look like. In the times where I fail or am not enough, I hope that she understands I was doing my best.
As a spouse, I try to live out my vows to Kelly from our marriage ceremony:
I bring you my open arms and unprotected heart. I offer you my patience, my listening ear, my perspective and my curiosity. I won’t let you take yourself too seriously. I will travel the world with you and I will help you find home again. I will be your constant companion as we challenge each other, nurture each other, and encourage each other. I promise to be faithful to you, to give you my fullest and deepest love, and to be your committed partner in all that life offers us.
Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes it's hard. It is a give and take that is rarely simple, but it's exactly the path I want to be on, a legacy I want to be working on.
We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way. I do not say lonely—at least, not all the time—but essentially, and finally, alone. This is what makes your self-respect so important, and I don't see how you can respect yourself if you must look in the hearts and minds of others for your happiness.
These words from Hunter S. Thompson resonate with me. I love and treasure the various kinds of community, relationship, professional identity, and intimate connection that I have in the world because of other people. But I enjoy those things the most when I have a strong, grounded understanding of who I am independent of them. I am most unsettled and unbalanced when I can't figure out what I mean to myself and where my true happiness emanates from, regardless of whatever external success or failure I might be experiencing.
My hope for the legacy of my inner life is that I can constantly challenge myself to undo and then rebuild my understanding of myself and the world, risking discomfort and feeling lost when I must, finding peace when I can.
No matter how much perspective I try to keep, I know that I will take what I have for granted, and will never be fully present to each joy and opportunity that come to me. But I can keep trying, and I can be kind to myself and others along the way.
These are the things I think about when I consider my legacy. At least, for now -- I hope that life continues to give me challenges and opportunities that help my understanding of my place in the world to evolve.
I know it's self-indulgent and vulnerable to write about it publicly, but doing so helps me find clarity and feel accountable, if only to myself. If you have your own thoughts about how you think about your legacy and what we leave behind in our lives, I hope you'll share them.