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How Will You Be Remembered?
Try not to make your legacy that grumpy old so-and-so.
I first thought about how I wanted to be remembered when my age was still in single digits. Having just been informed that literal immortality was not an option available to me, I cast about for ways to ensure it figuratively. Plan A was to become a great writer – so great that my name would be chiseled on the wall of my hometown library, an addendum to its pantheon of the 24 greatest minds of Western civilization. I thought Akchin would look splendid on that wall between Aesop and Aristotle.
Alas, Plan A lies in ruins. Not only have I no works worthy of nestling up to Aristotle, but even the wall itself no longer holds up a citadel of learning. The building’s current occupant is the Greater Shreveport Chamber of Commerce. The pantheon’s only connection to greatness is in the current occupant’s moniker.
But now that I have matured somewhat, I would gladly settle for a less grandiose measure of immortality. My Plan B is simply to be remembered fondly by a few people, for a few minutes. It’s silly, I suppose, but once I am on the underside of the planet it would be nice to know that my years on the top side left some residue to indicate I had been here.
But remembered how?
This week I asked a handful of my contemporaries how they wished to be remembered. Their answers varied, as you would expect. Several valued being a good influence on younger generations, particularly their grandchildren. We discussed the importance of telling the stories of our lives, even if grandchildren don’t seem ready to hear those stories now. One person spoke sadly of never learning enough about the lives of her own grandparents. Another cited the good example of Sidney Poitier, who penned his own life story in a series of extended letters to his great-granddaughter, beginning the task when she was born.
One friend recalled attending the funeral of a neighbor who had given birth to eight children, had more than 100 grandchildren, and who was eulogized with the words, “She always had time for everyone.” We agreed that as we get older, time becomes more valuable than money. Having time for all the valuable people in your life is a great gift, and a wonderful way to be remembered.
What triggered my own preoccupation with Plan B was an essay arguing that old men fall into one of only five types: Grumpy, dirty, crazy, loveable, or wise. (Ladies, not to worry: You get a choice of two grandmothering role models: Mary Poppins or Auntie Mame.) If it were up to me, I would opt for loveable old man, with a side order of wise. But stating a preference is different from making it happen.
Start the Work Now
In a book titled Who Do You Want to be When You Grow Old?, Richard J. Leider and David Shapiro observe, “We have to work on ourselves today so as to grow into the old person we want to become tomorrow.” I see that as an optimistic take, as it assumes we still have capacity to change and grow. The authors cite the views of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Reb Zalman), that aging can become “sage-ing” if a person is “still growing, still a learner, still with potential and whose life continues to have within it promise for, and connections to, the future.” A sage, in Reb Zalman’s view, is a work in progress.
The notion of being a work in progress rings true for me. It means continually learning, being curious (always) to know more. As Socrates (who earned his place on the wall of greats) put it, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” As long as I retain the humility to acknowledge how little I know, and keep fueling my curiosity, the arc of my life has not reached its terminus.
Yet there is one more task before me if I want to ensure my legacy as a loveable old man. I have to rein in my inner curmudgeon. As I get older and more calcified, I have to work with great intention to not become crankier. Truth to tell, a strong streak of curmudgeonly behavior is embedded in my DNA, and it will be the labor of a lifetime to suppress it into the cheerful aspect of a loveable, sagely, twinkly-eyed grandfather.
Wish me well.