A Legacy for the Ages

Earlier this month, the world paused to mark the death of Nelson Mandela. Tributes to his extraordinary life poured out from across the globe. From the streets of Soweto to the highest chambers of legislative power, people remembered Mandela’s passion for justice, devotion to his country, courage and optimism in the face of adversity, and an amazing capacity for forgiveness. His words and leadership enabled a divided nation to move forward and heal. What a remarkable life he lived and what an inspiring legacy he has left behind!

Every one of us will leave a legacy, whether good, bad, or indifferent. As we go through our lives, we are daily leaving our personal lifeprints on the people and places we touch. What lifeprints have you already created? Which ones are still yet to be? What will those you know and love remember most about you? What are you doing to invest in your most important relationships, create your most dreamed of experiences, and positively impact whatever it is that you’re most passionate about?

If you aren’t reflecting on these things and acting with intentionality, then your legacy may not turn out as you would have hoped. What is needed is to live on purpose and with a focus on what we believe in and what we care about, with integrity and consistency, in pursuit of our personal more that matters. Isn’t this what Mandela did?

Alfred Nobel was the Swedish chemist who invented dynamite. He believed his invention would end all wars. “The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second,” he wrote, “all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war.” But when Nobel’s brother Ludwig died, the newspaper mistakenly published Alfred’s obituary, calling him a “merchant of death.” Clearly, it appeared history would be judging him harshly.

Unlike most of us, Nobel was effectively given the unusual opportunity to read his own obituary. From that day forward, he seized the chance to more intentionally and proactively rewrite his own epitaph. He used his immense wealth to create the true legacy for which he hoped he always would be remembered – the establishment of international prizes to honor outstanding human achievement in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and work for peace.

Part of Nelson Mandela’s legacy is his recognition as a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 – an honor he shared with Frederik Willem de Klerk, the South African president who released Mandela after 27 years in prison and worked with him to end apartheid and establish the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.

In his Nobel lecture, Mandela both anticipated and affirmed his legacy:

We do not believe that this Nobel Peace Prize is intended as a commendation for matters that have happened and passed … we devote what remains of our lives to the use of our country’s unique and painful experience to demonstrate, in practice, that the normal condition for human existence is democracy, justice, peace, non-racism, non-sexism, prosperity for everybody, a healthy environment and equality and solidarity among the peoples.

… inspired by the eminence you have thrust upon us, we undertake that we too will do what we can to contribute to the renewal of our world … Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism which the Nobel Peace Prize encapsulates.

Many of us would benefit immensely from a wake-up call like Nobel’s that provides a “do over” opportunity with our life and legacy. He was moved by a case of mistaken identity and a disappointing epitaph. What will awaken and inspire the rest of us? Amidst the busyness of our lives, what will lead us to pause and reflect on what we care about most, what more we can do to create our desired lifeprints, and how we wish to be remembered? As Mandela reminds us, the only legacy we can pass on after death is one that we’ve given life to while we’re alive.


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