Life is Short: Leave Virtue As Your Legacy

The other day I was driving home from an outing when I nearly got into a car accident because a massive van tried to enter my lane and did not stop when I honked. I was, fortunately, able to swerve into another lane, but I had a huge rush of adrenaline (as one is prone to do when nearly in an accident).

As I pulled up to the next red light, a thought popped into my mind:

“Life is short, leave virtue as your legacy.”

I don’t know if I heard that somewhere, if it’s something cobbled together from a variety of sayings, or if it’s just a product of what I was musing about at the moment. In any case, I don’t recall where it really “came from” as it were.

But I know it’s a good idea. I was going over a passage from Julius Caesar the other day, and it was Marc Antony’s speech on Caesar, which went something like the following when translated into modern English:

“Too often, we forget the good people have done,
and remember their crimes when they are gone”

When we’re forced to contemplate our mortality, we often do not like what we see. It is many a man who has gone to his grave dreading the beyond, knowing that his legacy will not be celebrated but rather condemned. Too often people who win great acclaim in their youth and their work through their productive years find themselves held accountable only for their failures. That’s not to say that we don’t have a duty to examine ourselves, and to an extent to examine others.

But rather, it serves as a testament to how we ought to live. We can live lives for the best short-term outcome, choosing pleasure and great things above all else. Pleasure is not in and of itself an evil end. I believe that God made pleasant things to remind us of the way the world ought to be, but it is a reminder and not a replacement for what the world is. We must occasionally choose the difficult things.

I’ve been trying recently to be more grateful as an antidote to the disconnect I have felt from the people around me as I enter an increasingly busy professional career. Most of the people I aspire to be like are incredibly thankful, both to the world as a whole and to the individuals they interact with on a daily basis, because they have a picture of how fortunate they are and how many things they receive at every moment from the world around them. Life itself is a gift, even if there is no joy to be found in the circumstances that surround it; the air we breathe and that fills our blood is a gift in and of itself, the time we have ahead of us is a gift, and so is our history and our past.

But virtue is more than simply receiving. There’s something wrong with intentionally displaying virtue for its own sake, but at the same time virtue is incredibly public. It must also be practiced in private, but when it is it will become obvious in its own right. Industry, integrity, generosity, and altruism can all be practiced anonymously, without any chance that others find out.

But the true merit of virtue comes in the upright life. There’s a song in the Christian tradition, a children’s song, that has lyrics in the vein of:

“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”

Our virtue is our light. It’s ill-mannered and bad spirited to force our light into someone’s face, but at the same time if you are living a truly virtuous life, you must do so outside of your comfort zone. There is no excuse for living virtuously solely in private and appearing apathetic to your moral character in public. That is not what any of the rules of humility imply.

Rather, the purpose of virtue is to guide your every step. You don’t announce that you are doing things because of your virtue, because that would be boasting and speak to a lack of humility or improper motivations, but you want to provide others with an example: with every action think not only of how you would like to be treated, but also of how you would want those dearest to you to be treated. There is a sacrificial streak in our society, what Stephen Covey calls “lose-win” relationships, that encourages us to put up with a lot for the sake of maintaining relationships and our social status without risk of change.

Virtue requires us to communicate and live in all ways to model right behavior to everyone. Of course your greatest deeds will be private, your greatest triumphs personal, but it is a waste of a virtuous life to do everything in secret.

The greatest way to leave a legacy of virtue is by your words, rather than your actions. Those words must be genuine, and backed up by a history of action, but the words themselves do not speak of your legacy.

The words that build virtue are the words that build virtue in others. This can happen in the form of instruction and advice (why else would I write this essay?) but the most important way to do this is subtly, without knowledge of your intent, much as I feel that there is something to be said for making your greatest altruism anonymous.

To accomplish these goals, I started a deliberate process of affirming people. By talking about their virtues, not my own, there is no chance that I may boast (Paul has a similar approach in his letters to the early Christian church, where he boasts of his weaknesses so that he may glorify God’s power), and I affirm them privately and publicly as I see fit.

Public affirmation may be seen as flattery by some, but I feel that the public part of it is a vital element. Public affirmation makes people feel reinforced in their endeavors, especially if done in a manner where others can join in on the affirmation and confirm your statement (a caution about being earnest in your affirmations should not be necessary at this point, but I will add it regardless).

Furthermore, you are sending a message to that person that you believe so strongly in their virtue that you will shout it from the rooftops (metaphorically or not), staking your own reputation on theirs. One of the hardest parts of a good affirmation is figuring out how you want to word the traits you are affirming; a good affirmation not only thanks the recipient for showing their virtue, but it communicates to them a lesson about themselves and who they are.

To borrow another line from Shakespeare, “The eye sees not its own reflection.” Seeing virtue in oneself is unreliable at best, and likely to lead to over-inflated hubris at first. However, your ability to see virtue in others is much stronger; you are unlikely to justify their flaws in a way that people looking for virtue in themselves often do. You are also likely to have a fresh perspective that they do not have on the way that they act. Good habits, as with all habits, are often unnoticeable to the person doing them.

By affirming people, you can ensure that they are told of their virtues. As someone who is perpetually beginning my own quest to become a more virtuous person, I can confirm that affirmation is a powerful tool that opens up the capability to see things that would not inherently appear to me.

So if you want to leave a legacy of virtue, start by recognizing virtue in others. Tell them of their virtues, and tell others of their virtues.

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