Does it have to have your name on it?

My freshman year at college I lived in Joline Hall (pictured at left). While I enjoyed the myriad ways that the building’s Gothic charms, elevatorlessness, paucity of bathroom facilities for women and complete lack of window screens enhanced my education, I would not say that Mr. Joline’s legacy was enhanced by the addition of his moniker on my dorm.

To give a fictional, but possible, contrast, suppose John Doe gave up his Saturdays for a year working on a Habitat for Humanity house. He could have been working overtime to advance his career, or relaxing poolside with a drink full of colored plastic swords and cherries, but instead he volunteered to help a family in desperate need. When the Habitat house was completed, a family moved in. Away from the violence and danger of his previous neighborhood, the family’s son was able to attend a better school and excel there. Against all odds, the boy was the first of his family to go to college, on a full scholarship to Princeton, where he lived in Joline Hall his freshman year.

The question is: whose legacy most directly impacted the fictional boy from the Habitat house? I would contend that although John Doe’s name was not on the house he was instrumental in completing, his legacy was more important to the boy than that of Adrian Joline.

This is not to say that there is something wrong with having your name attached to your legacy. Is it wrong for an author to have his name attached to his books? Of course not. Was it wrong for Adrian Joline to have a building named after him? Of course not. But the name is not what makes the legacy – the ideas in the book or opening the doors to education are the legacy. If your motivation for leaving a legacy is that YOU want to be remembered, you just might be missing the point.

As it turns out, Adrian Joline (class of 1870) was an influential lawyer and avid collector of books who published three volumes of his own including The Diversions of a Book-Lover, which is, astoundingly, available in a brand new paperback edition from Amazon. If you do a little digging, you will learn that Joline’s motivation for giving substantial sums to Princeton was to establish greater study of American political history (so, as I was a politics major, it turns out his impact on my education went beyond my first campus address). As a prominent lawyer involved in trusts and railroads and so forth, I’m sure Joline’s impact was far reaching, and as a benefactor and philanthropist no doubt his legacy is wider than we might imagine.

Again, however, the point is that Joline’s legacy was not made when he put his name on something. His ideas and success in a field he was passionate about made the legacy – his name on a dorm is incidental.

I think if you go about considering your legacy with an eye toward how you can be known and loved throughout history, you’re going to miss your target entirely. You can’t approach life with goals like “I want to be the next Plato! I want to be the next Queen Elizabeth! I want to be the next Magic Johnson!” Chasing notoriety is not the way to ensure a legacy. Certainly you can learn a lot from historical and contemporary figures about how to excel in your field or how to make the most of your opportunities, but ultimately your legacy will be unique and you’ll have to consider the intersection of your individual God-given talents, the circumstances God has given you, and the opportunities He has placed in your path.

Most likely the vast majority of your legacy will be anonymous. Most of our names won’t be well remembered long after our deaths. Personally, I’m OK with that. I’m here to glorify God, not myself. I hope that in being deliberate with how I spend my time and use my gifts I can be most useful for God’s purposes. I pray that He will work through me NOT because I want to be famous, but because I want my life to count for eternal purposes. When I’m old I’d like to look back and think, “That was a life well lived.” Whether or not I leave my name on a building or a book I’d like to be satisfied that I did the best I could at the work I was called to do.

I hope that as you consider your legacy, whether spiritual, intellectual, social or physical aspects, you’ll be encouraged that you do indeed have an impact on the world, and inspired to seek out the good works God prepared in advance for you to do (Ephesians 2:10).

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