Building a legacy to stand the test of time
Paul Voss contends that words matter. The word “legacy” has multiple meanings — and not all are positive. The word derives from the same word as “Legatus,” so those striving to be ambassadors for Christ should take note of Voss’ insights. On the professional level, more and more companies are focusing on legacy issues . . .
by Paul J. Voss
Socrates once famously stated that “all knowledge begins with a definition of terms.” This insight captures an essential characteristic of philosophy and the branch of philosophy called ethics. Without proper discrimination between and among contested terms, intellectual confusion (a roadblock to truth and philosophical clarity) will always result.
Consider, for example, the word legacy. As you can tell from the inset definition, legacy carries a rather impressive pedigree — dating back to the 15th century. The current English word derives from the Latin word legatus, meaning an ambassador or emissary (as readers of this magazine clearly understand). In fact, Legatus challenges its members to become ambassadors for Christ by living public, professional and personal lives of virtue and fidelity. In doing so, Legates actually pay tribute to this rich etymological history.
The word legacy — used exclusively as a noun for nearly 500 years — expands the original meaning and now signifies a “gift” or “bequest” transmitted from one person (or one generation) to another. Used as a noun in this fashion, legacy carries a wholly positive meaning and represents an act of love, charity and care. Creating and preserving a legacy thus becomes the work of a lifetime, as it cannot be forged quickly and it certainly cannot be purchased. The great effort people put into “legacy building” testifies to its enormous importance.
On the professional level, more and more companies are focusing on legacy issues and how to create something of value that can survive through challenging economic times and rapid technological innovation. Businesses of all types see the wisdom in creating a product, service and culture that stands as a legacy for others to nurture and grow. In this sense, any attempt at building — a family, a business, or a community — seeks to establish, at some level, a legacy.
On the personal level, awareness of legacy issues obviously plays a crucial role in the formation of family and faith. Families often create legacies of love, fidelity, faith and service unconsciously, built upon the small acts of daily life, including morning rituals, meals, vacations, prayer, births, religious ceremonies and a host of other activities. The Catholic faith and its rich history and tradition provide ample opportunities for legacy building within families.
However, the word legacy also has a secondary meaning of a much more recent carnation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (the finest dictionary in the English-speaking world), since 1990, legacy can also be used as an adjective. When used in this sense, legacy loses all of the positive connotations it once held. When legacy modifies a noun, it contains a much more insidious meaning, referring to an old or outdated system of little or no value.
We see this sense of legacy in the world of technology — when we confront the “legacy software” or “legacy hardware systems” that no longer have any use or apparent application. When we stumble across this collection of “legacy data,” we erase, discard, ignore or hide it. As an adjective, legacies become expendable, harmful, embarrassing and even unsightly.
So, as we build our legacies, we need to stop and ask a couple of simple questions: Is the legacy you are striving to create a noun or an adjective? How will others view this attempt? Will they see it as a living, dynamic and vital enterprise — and hence a noun worthy of preservation, celebration and emulation? Or will they view the legacy as an adjective and part of an outdated system that no longer has a purchase on our intellects and imaginations. We can easily move these rhetorical questions from the world of business to the world of faith and family life.
Take marriage, for example. Nearly every study undertaken in the recent decades arrives at the same conclusion: Fewer and fewer people are getting married, and of those who do choose marriage, fewer and fewer see it as having a permanent value. The “legacy” component of marriage is rapidly changing from a noun to an adjective. In other words, more people see marriage as a contract between two people rather than a covenant made with God and each other. If those of us who take marriage seriously cannot make a viable case for the value of marriage — for the creation of a legacy — the younger generations will continue to see it as an outdated or unnecessary formality and the unfortunate shift from noun to adjective will continue to gain strength.
Paul J. Voss, PH.D., is president of Ethikos, a professional organization offering ethics training, and an associate professor of literature at Georgia State University.