What is Your Legacy? The Simple Answer is Within Your Reach

The future is like a taxi driver awaiting our direction. “Where to?”

What we leave behind at the end of our trip — our legacy — attempts to answer the question, “When I pass the baton, what will the next runner receive?”

Does emphasizing personal success, outsized ambition, and individual prosperity leave something worth a lifetime?

Will a career of stature make the best life and legacy?

Here are two alternatives routes worth considering. The first is the path one woman pursued searching for “the good life.” The second adds you to the picture.


To begin, please read this eloquent description of the female I mentioned:

Legacies are hard things. As a teacher, you have no idea, usually, what’s going on on the other side of the table, and you won’t know for 20 years, 30 years, 50 years — you probably will never know what the lasting effects are, so I wouldn’t claim much. But I’ll say that Amy was an absolutely masterful teacher.

I was pretty good, but she was fabulous. And she was fabulous because if a student asked her a question, she turned it back on them. She didn’t feel obliged to give answers. She was there to make them think and think harder.

A student would say something, and if it was halfway good, she would say, “Another sentence …,” and it was flattering to the student to think they had another sentence in them, besides the best that they’d give you.

They searched for it, and they found it.

The other thing to say about her is that the women students, especially, saw and treasured in Amy the fact that she integrated naturally and easily a beloved life of teaching and learning, and a beloved life of marriage and family.

She wasn’t proving a point. She just did it. The students were invited into our home. They saw all aspects of her, and a lot of the students gravitated to her for this reason.

I am sure you realize the last sentence identifies the speaker as the husband of this remarkable educator. Amy Kass died in 2015, and the quotation comes from her mate, Leon Kass. If I listed all their combined achievements, you would be humbled, but they include books, civil rights activism, medicine, and much more. Concerning what her husband highlights, she was an instructor in the humanities at the University of Chicago.

What else do the words from the man tell us about his wife, the direction of her life, and the possibility of one’s own legacy?

He underlines a grace in her interactions with the young people who wished to learn from her. She lifted them by evoking their best — thoughts unexpressed but for her attempt to provoke their self-questioning, careful reading, and rejection of easy answers.

Amy Kass must have been the type of instructor you encounter once or twice in a lifetime — if you are lucky.

The kind you never forget.

Her partner mentions more than her professional attainments. He highlights how she lived, emphasizing her love for him and their family. She opened herself to other relationships out of her love of people.

As a professor of classics, she not only talked with her students about how thinkers in antiquity valued nobility of character, but she provided an effortless illustration in her everyday actions by being generous, eager, honorable, devoted, strong, and considerate in the classroom and beyond.

Now, the second answer I promised follows from the first. To leave a fine legacy, you needn’t become famous, make tons of money, or raise heroic children.

Attempt to match the guidance Marcus Aurelius, the ancient Roman emperor, gave himself:

No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good. Like gold or emerald or purple repeating to itself, ‘No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be emerald, my color undiminished.’

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.15

This much — to be good — we all control. There is no need to listen to all the bullying or tempting voices which diminish or entice you.

The word legacy might sound too grand for such a modest approach to each day, but it is also brave. You will touch many lives and leave behind invisible traces of yourself by taking the advice of this statesman and Stoic philosopher.

Virtue is possible now, this instant, and all the time ahead of you. It is yours if you make it so. I’ll bet Amy Kass would have agreed.


The painting is called School Teacher by Jan Steen. It is followed by Holger Ellgaard’s photo of the Carl Milles sculpture, Guds Hand (The Hand of God). They are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

26 thoughts on “What is Your Legacy? The Simple Answer is Within Your Reach

  1. I’ve struggled with death, mental health issues, suicidal ideation, neighborhood effects (neighborhood violence, school bullying, workplace bullying, workplace harassment, apartment living harassment), poor choices in relationships due to a dysfunctional upbringing, being polyvictimized (from childhood traumas to adulthood traumas, and everything in between), and more – all of which hinder a person’s reputation as “good.” Minorities struggle with racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and more – and their view among many people and groups might be anything less than “good.” Their legacies tainted.

    I consider not only the famous people whose lives and thus legacies are debated (e.g., George Floyd) post death, but also those who weren’t famous, who were alone, who were suffering from mental illnesses, who were poor most of their lives, who made mistakes in their lives (largely due to systemic traumas as well as interpersonal traumas), and many more. I consider those who weren’t considered “good” at all, and whose resulting legacies were at best forgotten or at worst shunned from those who knew them.

    Sometimes I fear that life is too short to turn regrets, mistakes, and endless victimizations around for the sake of a better legacy. Scores of victims have been forgotten, even those who were trafficked and murdered, or those indigenous missing persons who were never reported and/or investigated by law enforcement.

    And even among the survivors who live, including those dealing with historical and systemic traumas (e.g., racial traumas), they have less of a fighting chance when traumatic sequelae affects their ability to be seen as “good,” when society stigmatizes mental illness and resulting behavioral problems as “bad.” Legacies for them, especially those concerning intergenerational traumas, are often not that good. And such persons lack the resources to make amends, correct their mistakes, and move forward with a good enough life to leave behind a good enough legacy.

    I fear of being one of those forgotten or hated people.

    I’ve been considering my legacy for a long time. I think trauma at any stage adultifies you to the next stage, whether you’re in childhood and adultified into teenhood or adulthood, or whether you’re in teenhood and adultified to adulthood and beyond, or whether you’re in young adulthood and adultified to middle-aged and beyond, due to perhaps disabilities or accidents or even so-called street smarts. Trauma forces you to think beyond, including traumatic losses.

    How many people who have struggled with suicidal ideation consider their legacy, and wonder if they were good enough or are good enough to remain living long enough to achieve a better legacy before dying properly? I know I was in that position many times before. Thankfully, I’ve had help along the way. Thankfully, I’m not in that dark place as much. But I recall being there, and I recall “legacy” being a huge topic for internal discussion.

    I struggle with “legacy.” I think I always have, even though people start considering their legacy more and more in middle age and beyond. I think I struggled with it since my teens, and even more so after multiple adulthood traumas. I think trauma forced me to adultify into such thoughts.

    I honestly don’t know what people think of me alive, but I fear what people will say once I’m dead. I fear what the afterlife will or won’t bring, and fear what is left behind on earth once I depart.

    I’ll probably discuss this with my therapist soon. But I thought to type this out here, since I don’t know if I’m alone in the struggle concerning legacies and traumatizations.

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are not alone. No one is alone. Truly no one is alone.

      Liked by 2 people

    • My dearest Dragon Fly, thanks for sharing your story of trauma and not considering yourself as a good person. As human beings, we are born into an imperfect world of so-called human ingenuity and progress. Our point of entry into this world puts millions of us into disadvantageous life situations. Depending upon our ability to overcome and triumph the obstacles along our journey to adulthood, we all fail in various degrees to be good. Look at the mess we humans have created for ourselves! Can we as a collective species claim that we are leaving a good legacy for those who will come after us?

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you, Rosaliene! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well said, Rosaliene. As you say, we can all do better. Moreover, part of the danger of our tendency to criticize ourselves can be the immobilization of our ability to do what we can do. Best to look to today, as the philosophers remind us.

        Liked by 2 people

    • I agree with the wise remarks of Harvey and Rosaliene, Dragon Fly. You are not alone in this at all.

      Neither Marcus Aurelius or any other person in world history can claim anything close to perfection, in no small part because of the difficulty of making ones way in our imperfect existence. Your situation has been far worse than most.

      But the philosopher’s recommendation, and certainly mine, is to take each day as if it were a clean slate, to make what conditions permit of it, and to do good along the way. I have no doubt you have done more good than you credit yourself for.

      Tomorrow offers a fresh chance. As Aurelius wrote in this Meditations, do not let the opinions of others take you over.

      Knowing your writing as I do, I am sure that your judges would themselves fall short. As Jesus said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (John 8:7)

      Liked by 3 people

      • Thank you, Dr. S! 🙂 I like what you said, “But the philosopher’s recommendation, and certainly mine, is to take each day as if it were a clean slate, to make what conditions permit of it, and to do good along the way.” That really gives me hope. 🙂

        And yes, I do put myself down a lot. I don’t really know my worth.

        I’ve lost a lot of friends – largely due to my mental illnesses. I’ve tried my best improving and overcoming, but I’ve found myself failing many times, too. I’ve aced and I’ve failed. I’ve won awards, but I’ve also let people down – who had high hopes beyond my awards. I just couldn’t handle certain things. I kind of regressed backwards. My mental illness worsened with certain stressors. I thought that my legacy building was completely gone. I felt like I had no purpose in life – circa 2017 and beyond. I struggled even more when the pandemic hit.

        I also felt like I wasn’t able to live up to my potentials. I think my mental illness gets in the way of that. It’s a hunger inside me, but I’m also growing really tired and fatigued.

        At least now I know that legacies are more than accomplishments. At least now I know that every day is a new day, and that maybe I can do something good each day – even if it is small.

        I also like your biblical reference. 🙂 I plan on reading the bible more. I used to read it all the time until I got hurt by a few churches in the past. But I also remember the connections I felt when I attended church and read the bible more often.

        I have a few family members who are Jewish, as well as a friend. I also want to learn about the Jewish tradition, too. I find both religions soothing and comforting at times.

        There’s a part of me inside that is spiritual, and that part of me hopes for a great life beyond this one. I hope there is a good afterlife for us all. It would be really sad if we only had one life to live, and if there was nothing beyond that. I truly can’t imagine that there’s nothing beyond this life. There’s a huge part of me inside that hopes and believes in a life beyond, and that this present life is a learning tool to help us with the next. We don’t know what is in the beyond. And I also admire atheists and agnostics for their logic, too.

        Thanks for your kind words and wisdom, Dr. S. 🙂 Your posts and responses really do help us!

        You, Dr. S., have an amazing legacy! 🙂 I’m sure many people will enjoy reading your blog posts over and over again throughout the years, and I’m sure that your former clients will remember how you’ve helped them. Hopefully you’ll have many more years to add to your legacy! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    • You are good, Dragon Fly…your goodness shines through your posts here on Dr. Stein’s blog. You are so good, I was worried about you when you went many months without posting here, and the relief I felt when you returned. In addition to your goodness, you are a brilliant writer. This is the legacy I see.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Nancy, thank you! I took a break from social media – literally all social media – for a very long time. But I’m slowly returning. I had no idea my replies had any impact, or at least some positive impact. I usually speak from the heart, or sometimes over-speak. It’s funny how some people see me as a good writer, but I see everyone else as the good writer. I think that’s because I lack depth with my word choices, and sometimes I go on multiple tangents (without focus). I wish I knew more of the fancy words many others do. I suppose I’m still relatively young enough to learn. I’m approaching my very late 40s (I’ll be 50 in 2 years and a few months).

        I feel better now that I’ve read so many comforting and supportive comments here. Thank you all! It truly means a lot!

        I, too, find responses to Dr. Stein’s blogs helpful. I love Dr. Stein’s writing and his topic choices. It often gives me interesting things to discuss with my therapist.

        Liked by 3 people

      • Dragon Fly…You certainly do not lack depth at all! You write from your heart and experiences and I can relate to what is written. I understand taking a social media break. I am presently reading the book, “Stolen Focus,” and it has led me to delete my Twitter account and delete my Instagram app…I also disabled email notifications so I am not being drawn it. I rather spend time reading than mindlessly scrolling social media.

        Good luck with turning 50. I had difficulty with that one and felt like the world would end on that day, but it didn’t, and I managed to survive it somehow. You are still a young woman…embrace it!! 😉 You are a good egg!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I quit Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media, too. The book you mentioned sounds interesting. And yes, you’re right about the endless scrolling. It was definitely wasting my time. I’m still online most of the time, but in more meaningful ways.

        Thank you for your kind words and observations!

        Your comments help me, too!

        Liked by 1 person

      • See what Dr. Stein has brought us? Social media with integrity. Facebook and Twitter could take some lessons from him! 😊

        Liked by 1 person

      • So true, Nancy! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, what a thoughtful post. I googled Amy Kass to find out more about her and am so impressed by her body of work. But the thing I love about the description you gave was the “Another sentence…” request that she’d pose to her students.

    And then the wisdom that you add to that – to be good. It reminds me of a quote that has stuck with me, “Don’t try to be different. Just try to be good. To be good is different enough.” – Arthur Freed

    What I love about this post is that you take Amy example and then combined with the quote from Marcus Aurelius, tell us that a legacy like Amy’s is done by just being the best person we can be each day. Beautiful – and actionable. Thank you, Dr. Stein!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Gerry: I think your writing is a wonderful legacy. Good writing erases time.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, sweet Joan. If time erasure is necessary, I imagine I have to look for a pretty big eraser!

      Your comment reminds me of the old Woody Allen joke. “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it by not dying!” By the way, Ayo had a good game last night!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Dr. Stein, thanks for this touching, insightful, and inspirational post ❤ As a former high school teacher, I hope that in some little way I have made a difference in the lives of my students. Indeed, the best we can achieve as individuals is to be good. That in itself is no easy task in a chaotic world of conflicting views and beliefs.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Rosaliene, I believe teachers really impact human lives in so many ways. I can still recall some of my elementary school teachers on forward, and how they really helped me – even as I reflect on my life throughout the years. Their help made all the difference in some areas of my life.

      Therapists are also like teachers. They teach their clients to manage their symptoms and to improve their lives in meaningful ways. I’ve had a few good therapists in my life that made a huge difference, some even from the Veterans Crisis Line!

      Human relationships include elements of teaching. We learn from one another. We grow, we heal, we comfort, we engage. I think that leaving a legacy of teaching and forming good relationships keeps love alive in a chaotic (and sometimes dangerous) world.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed, Rosaliene. One can only remember and hope that the small steps accumulate. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a beautiful post, Dr. Stein. Many years ago my mother’s friend passed away and she was a wealthy woman who hobnobbed with the elite society in our area. She was a wonderful woman, and the bishop conducted her funeral mass in The Cathedral, where she worshiped. It was considered a great honor to have the bishop conduct her funeral mass, it showed what an excellent legacy she was leaving behind. During the funeral, I thought about all of the ordinary Catholics who would not have this honor bestowed upon them, and I also thought about all of the poor Catholics who were homeless, or utilizing the soup kitchen for meals and food assistance, and the bishop would most likely give them a wide berth rather than greeting them and shaking their hands. Many of these souls were also “good” people. Money, connection, and power will give you a grand legacy. I carry in my heart and mind the legacy of of many late ordinary and poor folks who have passed, much more than the ones who had status.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Nancy. Yes, money is often used not only by individuals but corporations to give themselves an easy avenue to public applause for philanthropy. At the same time, they continue to pollute the air and water or mistreat one group or another, including their employees. The Chicago Cubs owners (the Ricketts family) recently put a plaque on the wall at Wrigley Field congratulating themselves for remodeling the ballpark and winning the first World Championship in over 100 years (2106). We live in a pretty shameless world, to which the best antidote is the personal decency we can show our fellow men and women. I know you do your part in this.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thank you Dr. Stein, and you certainly have done your part in imparting goodness in this world!

    Liked by 1 person

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