What Will Be Your Legacy?
A friend visited recently whom I’ve known since college. She told me that she’s trying to determine what to do with the next 30 years, or, the last third of her life. I said that we could write off the last ten years of life to dementia or poor health. “Two ninths” she responded. “So we have 2/9th’s left,” I teared up. From laughter? Or, was it despair?
My friend is a math teacher so it is natural for her to think of legacy in terms of numbers. In the musical “Hamilton”, it stuck with me that Hamilton’s wife Eliza lived for “another fifty years” after her husband’s death. Did Hamilton’s death make her a 50/50? After Hamilton’s death she went on to painstakingly tell and keep his story alive, raise funds for the Washington Monument, speak out against slavery and establish an orphanage in New York City.
In December 2015, Gord Downie, the lead singer and lyricist for the Canadian band Tragically Hip was diagnosed with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor. He died in October, 2017 from a disease that gradually erased his memory. In his last year of his life, he released a solo album to bring attention to the government policy that sent Canadian children from indigenous families to abusive, state funded residential schools from the 19th century until the 1970’s. Downie’s Secret Path project became his Legacy Project, to make people aware of this tragic aspect of his country’s history. Apparently, Downie had not known about the schools or treatment of aboriginal children prior to his diagnosis. He chose thoughtfully about how he wanted to spend his remaining life. What was his legacy fraction, 1/26? He died at 52.
Martha Nussbaum a distinguished professor at the University of Chicago (and named one of 100 Leading Global Thinkers) spoke to a group of psychologists in January 2018 in Chicago, which I attended. She and her co-author, Saul Levmore wrote a book titled “Aging Thoughtfully - Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles and Regret”. Nussbaum’s message is to encourage each of us to give thought to what we want to do with our lives, especially as we age. She gave an example of a relative who lived for over a century, yet the woman was so preoccupied with trivia and herself that she left no legacy. Nussbaum could see nothing meaningful for this woman to be remembered for. Nussbaum’s message? Don’t waste your life like that. Think about how you want to spend your 2/9, or 50/50 or 1/26.
I see adults of all ages in my practice. They don’t usually come in to address legacy but there is often an undercurrent; an attempt to understand what life is all about, a desire not only to make meaning of it but to figure out where they can fit in, and what they want to contribute.
Of course, few of us know the true fraction that represents the percentage of life unlived. Maybe it’s ridiculous to put a number on it, yet the idea intrigues me. And, I know I’m not alone. The comfort is in talking about it out loud. Martha Nussbaum and my friend are talking about legacy and aging openly and candidly. I encourage you to join the conversation. Talk to friends, relatives or a therapist about it. To want to be known and remembered as bigger than oneself is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s your life.
Submitted by: Caroline Steelberg, Psy.D., LLC is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with offices in the Chicago Loop and Andersonville. She specializes in the treatment of adult individuals and couples.
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