Quantifying a legacy

While in New York recently, I had the chance to see “The Mountaintop,” a new Broadway play set during the last hours of of Martin Luther King’s life. It’s an excellent two-actor production with Samuel Jackson and Angela Bassett. The show goes for ninety minutes with both actors on stage the whole time, no intermission. Not only was it fascinating to attend a Broadway show where probably half the audience was African-American; the play also offered a humorous, at times irreverent and also moving portrait of MLK’s life within the context of the civil rights movement as a whole.


The experience caused me to reflect on the value of a human life, and the contribution a person can make during his or her lifetime. Oddly enough, Angela Bassett, my husband, and my husband’s roommate David all were classmates together in the same residential college at Yale. Now 53 years old, Angela might be said to be at the top of her game. For others such as David, however, the game is nearly over. David has been fighting cholangiocarcinoma, a cancer of the bile ducts, for nearly five years now. Although he has outlived all predictions, his time on earth is growing short. Yet who is to say that his life has any less meaning overall than Angela’s, or my husband’s, or King’s, or mine. To David’s family, his contribution is enormous and long-lasting. It may not touch as many people as someone else’s life does, but the impact is substantial all the same.

So here’s the lesson I take away from juxtaposing these classmates’ lives, thirty-odd years after their graduation. In my ongoing question, “What do I want my own legacy to be?”  I need to worry less about what I’m passing on, and more about the here and the now. I don’t need to collect a precious set of china or leave other “stuff” for people to discover after my death. No, much better to get out into the world now. Better to let people know they matter to me, and to work to change the things that seem wrong.

I have to remind myself not to “major in the minors,” as a friend says, but to stay focused on the things that count. My kids may inherit nothing but chipped plates and teacups from their mom, but at least they will know she tried to find ways to get involved, to make a difference.

Addendum: David died on November 5, 2011.  His life was far too short, yet his legacy cannot be measured.  The Washington Post published this obituary — it enumerates accomplishments, but doesn’t describe the person his friends and family will miss.



Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.