Leading Ethically Only is an educational outreach of Leadership Ethics Online (LEO). Essays range widely--from ethical analysis of the news, to ethical challenges to leaders in society, to personal reflections of an ethical nature. We welcome your thoughts and criticisms to make us better.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Ethics of Legacy Thinking

Ethics and Mortality

To remember we are mortal, that we have a certain end of days, affects our ethics.  To know that our lives have a a certain future termination point affects how we live in the present.  This little essay is about legacy thinking and ethics.

The knowledge we will die does not assure we will respond in a healthy or good way to the fact.  A very, very ancient response to mortality is, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!"  There have been many people, perhaps millions, who decided that hedonism, filling one's appetites, whatever they were, is the best answer to death.  For these, the Pleasure Principle is the instrumental method for their interim ethics prior to Death.  There also are some who engage in directly unhealthy, harmful, high-risk behaviors.  These are nihilistic.  They see accelerating the prospect of death to be a kind of exercise of their own egos, an exercise in personal power.  Since they cannot evade death, they beckon it sooner than it might have come.  Most people, however, are neither rank hedonists or nihilists.

Legacy Thinking and Ethics

Most people who think about death want to leave good memories, good effects behind, after they are gone.  They attend funerals, hear eulogies (and the word, eulogy, means "good words"), and consciously or unconsciously consider their own end, and how they will be remembered.  Perhaps after a funeral, we may be a little more inclined, a little less resistant, to doing some good deed.  Someone's death may shake us up a little from our routine schedule and our routine habits of just ignoring opportunities for good.

We all are creating our own legacy every day, for how our families, friends, coworkers, and neighbors will remember us as people.

Consider your own life so far.  Ask yourself, "Which people have affected me the most?  Which ones have embedded themselves in my mind, emotions, and even behaviors, for good or ill?  Why?"  We all have people whose lives affected ours.  Some people lovingly remember their parents and daily live to honor their memories and what they wanted their children to become.  Some people are driven negatively in perpetual reaction against people, some long gone, who harmed them.  And there are some of us who remember some individual--perhaps nameless--who did something very special for us we cannot forget.  We are marked also by complete strangers.

Just as our lives are affected forever by other people, so also we affect others by our lives and how we live them.  We have some relevant questions.  Will you embrace the fact you are constructing your own legacy?  Will you decide to become Commander and Leader of that legacy?  Or will you do what many do and simply allow your daily life to be driven here and there by circumstances?

You are creating a legacy, know it or not, admit it or not.  Now parents with little children realize this.  Children imitate parents, sometimes to our pleasure, at other times to our dismay or alarm.  Yet so many of us live out our daily lives with not much thought as to how we affect others, or the effects of our lives on others.  The truth is, however, we are creating our legacies, day by day, night by night.

Once upon a time, when I was a young man, I wanted to make a great difference in the world through academic scholarship, book publishing, changing how others thought and behaved.  Then, as I studied history, my considerable confidence was eroded by history itself.  I saw how the same problems seem to infest every period of human life.  As the biblical book of Ecclesiastes states, "There is nothing new under the sun."  So, after a period of time, I literally gave up hoping that one little person could do very much to change anything.

Then, ironically, history resurrected my hope in myself.  I realized that the "great and noble" people in history, and even the "despicable and wicked" people in history, had parents and grandparents.  I realized that some of the best and worst characters in history had become so because of single individuals crossing their paths.

There is great irony in the fact that single individuals cannot calculate the value of their lives, yet single individuals can directly or indirectly affect the flow and outcome of history.  That's right.  And that applies to YOU too.  The truth is, You cannot prejudge the value of your life, or how your life may affect someone else.  Your word of encouragement to a stranger may be precisely what is needed at that time.  Your word of condemnation may come at just the wrong moment.  Your helping hand may bring back someone from destruction.  Your isolation and selfishness may allow someone needlessly to slip away.

Create Your Legacy in Love

Now I understand despair and frustration.  I have been there too.  But do not allow negative, harmful feelings to stop you from creating a legacy of love.  We all want to be remembered as loving people.  So let us, you and me, join together in making a pact, a contract if you will, to live daily in love.

One of my favorite scriptures in the New Testament is from the little, tiny epistle of 1 John, the fourth chapter, verses seven to twenty-one.  Let me quote portions of this passage.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love....Those who say, "I love God,"  and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister who they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
We may believe many things about ourselves.  We are good.  We are bad.  We are average.  We are not that outstanding.  We just are.  But the truth is, every one of us is actively or passively creating our own legacy, day by day, night by night.  And there is this additional truth:  Every One of Us Has the Capacity to Love.

Take a good, honest look at your life.  Answer this question.  "What am I doing today with the life I have been given?"  You are creating a legacy anyway.  Why not create a legacy of love today?  You will not change history; however, your legacy of love must may, may, cross the path of someone else who will change history.  And the truth is, You have no way to calculate the intrinsic worth of whatever you decide to do in love today.

What do you say you and I agree to lock arms and make a firm commitment to be loving?  Why should we not make an intentional decision to use the life we've been given for love, not just for consumption?  In my theology, I do believe God is love.  (Yes, I know there are problems with this statement, when we look at earthquakes, tsunamis, and all freakish natural disasters, those "acts of God," as insurance companies describe them.  But that is another subject for another blog...but only by request.)  So why not use the life given to live in, to live out of, love?  If we are to end this life, why not leave behind thousands and thousands of seeds of love--words, deeds, known and unknown--in the lives of all those we meet and met?  Then, cannot the God of love also recognize those who lived in love, at the Last Day?

This blog entry is my little piece of love for you today.  Behold, a tiny bit of my own legacy, for you!

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