When To Start Thinking About Legacy

Chicago’s CEO, Mayor Richard M. Daley, isn’t seeking re-election, and his announcement–along with the local media’s parsing of it–started me to thinking about when a leader, or a person in general, should begin focusing on legacy. 

The mayor has been one of four non-interim mayors who have served in my memory.  Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, Eugene Sawyer, and Richard M. Daley.  Of course, he’s the longest serving of the four mentioned.  He’s been in office for more than twenty years, and a lot of people are talking about the mayor’s strengths and weaknesses, his triumphs and missteps.  I won’t enter that discussion because a broader topic piques my interest. 

Legacy is what’s left when you leave.  I’ve not left many places in my life.  I’ve got distance between the mayor’s decision and any similar ones in my life.  I haven’t served for twenty plus years anywhere.  But that’s why I’m writing this post.  I’m writing this post to think about how legacy and what’s left at the end of a career or a life or a relationship matters just as much when those things start.  I’m writing to press myself to think about my own ending, to encourage you, maybe, to think about yours.

When I heard of the mayor’s decision, I thought about Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst who put forth some intriguing and formative theories about human development.  Erikson formulated nine stages of what he called psychosexual development.  In each of the stages a person experiences a crisis and has a task. 

In the first stage of development, the crisis as Erikson finds is the tension between basic trust and mistrust.  An infant, in that first stage, grows and develops either a fundamental trust in the world as he knows it or a basic mistrust.  In a trusting scenario, the child develops the strength or quality of hope.  And on it goes.  Each stages includes a crisis, a task, a quality, and a few other things.

When talking about one of the later stages of development, Erikson says that life “includes a retrospective accounting of one’s life to date; how much one embraces life as having been well lived, as opposed to regreting missed opportunities, will contribute to the degree of disgust and despair one experiences.”  Disgust and despair are emotional reactions inside that late life stage.  When time is short, when there’s no other life to create or build or live, you look back and enjoy or despair at what you’ve seen.

I realize that it’s an easy task for some people to evaluate life.  I have two basic times in my life when I’m in a naturally reflective mood–my birthday and my wedding anniversary–and between those two occasions are monthly conversations with my spiritual director.  Each one of those seasons or talks helps me evaluate what I’m doing, what I’m feeling, and why I’m doing and feeling what I am.  Hopefully I get to the practical questions too of how I can do better and feel better and choose better.

But I don’t often connect these moments or conversations with legacy.  I don’t ask, thinking about later, what will this mean then?  If anything I discount later because later seems far away.  It looks down a long line.  It looks like I have more time than I know.  Of course, every funeral I conduct and every person I know who dies reminds me that time is never settled in our hands.

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4 thoughts on “When To Start Thinking About Legacy

  1. I occasionally take stock of where I’ve been thus far and where I’m going. I think that reflective thinking helps put things in perspective and helps me to remember what is the most important aspects of my life. Thanks for a thought provoking post!

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