Navigating an Uncertain (Lega) Sea
“The world will little note, nor long remember …”
These words of Abraham Lincoln were his prediction that the speech containing them would have no permanence. Ironically, the Gettysburg Address would become one of most enduring elements of Lincoln’s legacy.
Recently, I had the pleasure of reconnecting with a former classmate, David Sherron, after a 40-year hiatus. Although our friendship was not among the richest of my college years, the more I got to know David, the deeper my affection and respect for him grew. He had the unique ability to always leave me curiously uplifted after every encounter.
Upon our reunion, we quickly embarked on catching each other up on how our lives had unfolded post-graduation. I learned that David has a proclivity for rescuing the homeless; founded the ministry Unto Him, which is dedicated to serving folks in need in his community; and hoped to publish his first book.
Despite what I judge to be laudable societal contribution, David shared his fear that his impact will not long outlive him. Like Lincoln, my friend humbly underestimates his legacy.
David voiced a concern common to many, I suspect. Once raised, inevitable questions follow. How will I be remembered, if at all? Will it be for the good, the bad, or perish the thought, the ugly? What shore will the sea of life’s winds cast me to?
Consider the legacy of the late Bill Buckner. Buckner, of Major League Baseball fame, could have justifiably groused: ”I might have been remembered as a batting average champion, or the American League single-season record-holder for assists by a first baseman, or even for being the first major leaguer to wear special high-top cleats, but no, you allow one feebly struck ground ball to roll through your legs during a potential World Series clinching game and … “
ALS, as it does with every important aspect of life, threatens to rob those afflicted with it of the ability to add to their legacies. With rare exception — such as Augie Nieto, current chairman of Augie’s Quest to Cure ALS and the ALS Therapy Development Institute, or Steve Gleason, a national ALS patient advocate — the opportunity for noteworthy achievement perpetually declines exponentially post-onset.
I have not contemplated the mark I will leave behind since shortly after my diagnosis. When ALS sent my relatively carefree and leisurely stroll through life into constant upheaval, I took inventory. My inglorious episodes outnumbered my noteworthy moments. The sobering reality was that odds were that any legacy I might leave behind would be dubious at best.
That troubled me for several weeks. As a child, I harbored Walter Mitty-like fantasies about my certain adulthood fame. As a man, I was still prone to occasional grandiose flights of fancy with respect to the reach of my eventual notoriety. Whenever I’d ponder my yet unestablished destiny, I’d reason that there was still time. That is, until ALS canceled that fallback rationalization.
While ruminating over that toll of my newly dispensed hardship, I stumbled upon a bit of encouragement. The Athenian statesman Pericles suggested that, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” I loosely interpreted that wisdom. Legacy needn’t be limited to what is consciously remembered about a person.
It can also be positive change, imparted subliminally via observation or interaction. Suddenly, ALS became more than a horrific existence. It also became an opportunity. By eschewing bitterness, by remaining cheerful, by focusing outward in pursuit of the well-being of others, by attempting to always rise above the millstone dragging me down, perhaps I can provide encouragement to another struggling with their own “hell du jour.”
At the very least, maybe I can add to someone’s happiness. Most people prefer me as an upbeat, appreciative optimist rather than a complaining, self-absorbed pity party host. Many folks find comfort in the offer of a concerned, sympathetic ear. As Mother Teresa instructed, “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.”
The challenge for me is not letting my guard down. The moment that I lapse into a dejected, defeated victim may be the precise instant that someone impressionable takes notice. Jesus instructed his disciples to always “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works.”
In my case, “good works” is too strong. I think “good intentions” is probably apt. Is it working? Have I had a lasting positive influence on anyone’s life? That’s impossible to discern. Unfortunately there is no feedback mechanism for validation.
Admittedly, my legacy quest may be of the bargain-basement variety. If so, at a minimum, I’ll borrow from the Motel 6 spokesperson, Tom Bodett, and pledge to ”leave the light on for you.”
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