The sports world erupted Sunday with legitimate anguish about the death of a renowned sports figure. Kobe Bryant, an 18-time NBA All-Star and winner of five NBA championships, had been killed in a helicopter crash. His 13-year-old daughter also died. So did seven others who, not surprisingly, were unnamed in initial news coverage.
In the aftermath, the word “legacy” has been used in nearly all media reports.
These were nine human beings. All presumably had families. All likely had an impact on others. But none had the fame of the mega basketball star. One wonders about how, and for how long, each of these folks whose lives suddenly ended will be remembered? And by whom? Perhaps most important, what the legacy of each will be?
In the January issue of Mpls-St. Paul Magazine, the feature article was about Minnesota native Garrison Keillor, who had fallen from the lofty heights of having a nationally broadcast public radio show and of being a prolific author to being the subject of debate about alleged transgressions with female employees. The same questions about legacy certainly are appropriate when considering Keillor. In the article, Keillor laments that an author he revered in his youth is barely known today even by people who read. The legacy obviously faded. As a quote from Keillor on the magazine cover explains, “We are all temporary and we all go on and we’re forgotten.”
The principle, which is broadly accurate, seems to be that all of us, regardless of current importance or notoriety, have a maximum of a 50-year personal legacy — a legacy associated with our names.
So, think ahead 50 years. Who will know of Bryant and Keillor? Who will recall them with any specific understanding of what they did when they walked among us? Honestly, few will know much about these two wildly popular and recognized persons who lived in 2020. Only a few athletes or avid readers (or people who recall nostalgically the magic of live radio programing) will be able to say much about these two.
What does the fact of a fading legacy say about the rest of us mere mortals? Do we even leave a legacy? Should we even care? Will the passage of 50 years erase our footprints?
The fact that very few historic figures can even be remembered without the aid of Google is worthy of pausing to think about what we do and who we influence. What is our legacy?
Unless your ego will simply not permit it, get over the fact that there will not be memorials to your brief existence. Your name will fade. Those whose lives you touched will even lose sight of the impact you had — and your name. But even though your name might not readily come to mind, you still might have a legacy. Maybe the legacy for most of us will be of the nonspecific type.
The fact that your great-grandchild may someday choose to be a mentor to a less fortunate inhabitant of our world, or devote a life to art or music, or simply find happiness in raising a family of honest good people, could be traced back to you. Your willingness during your window of life to set an example of kindness or caring or thoughtfulness should not be denigrated as meaningless. Such actions may not merit media coverage, but they are important. Similarly, your refusal to care for others or your propensity to engage in sharp practices or worse, lie and blatantly hurt others, will also leave a mark. The recipients of your actions will carry those actions in their own lives — for good or bad.
These thoughts are easily translated into contemporary issues. Those who worry about global issues of climate and hunger cannot help but make a better life for those yet unborn. Those who shout timeworn platitudes and refuse to engage in thoughtful discourse will make it easier for those who follow to find the same trap.
At the next funeral you attend, you should stop and think about the recently departed and consider their legacy. No need to publicize your conclusions. This is especially true if you can’t celebrate the person’s contributions. Friends in the Jewish tradition observe the notion of not speaking ill of others, an activity sometimes referred to as “lashon hara.” Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan, in his text on gossip laws, the “Chafetz Chaim,” states: “The prohibition against speaking Lashon Hara also applies when speaking about the deceased. Halachic authorities write that an ancient decree was enacted against speaking derogatorily about the dead.”
On the other hand, if your feelings about the person you honor with your presence at a funeral are a combination of sadness and thankfulness, you have a role model to emulate. You can take that person’s legacy as part of your own.
Karl Cambronne, a retired lawyer, lives in Golden Valley.