Divorced parents and years of sporadic contact with his father left him angry, yet with an irrepressible yearning for that which had not been. That yearning drew the son and father into my office. Once there, the son's anger and the father's defensiveness quickly bubbled up and roiled the air. To stop the acrimonious downward spiral, I asked each to relate an earlier, happier remembrance when the family was together. The son recalled a two-day summer trip when they had stopped at a roadside table for lunch, and in the surrounding grassy area, had played tag, and when caught, would roll with laughter in the grass. The father's face indicated a total lack of recall.
A family gathered the evening before the memorial service to talk about their deceased wife and mother. Long-forgotten remembrances brought tears, and commonly-recognized idiosyncrasies provoked laughter. I wondered whether the deceased, if she could listen in, would recognize herself, and I speculated on how often she might want to say, "But, that's not how it happened." Robert Burns understood and expressed that feeling two centuries ago.
Oh wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
William Jefferson Clinton, now approaching the end of his presidency, exhibits concern for his legacy. Try as he might, it will be only after partisan feelings no longer color current assessment and his presidency is seen in a broader historical perspective that his true legacy will be determined. Even so, over time, both fine and dubious reputations can slip and slide as, in my own brief lifetime, I have seen the reputation of Woodrow Wilson decrease and that of Harry Truman rise among historians.
Personally, I now find myself snared in this familiar pattern. Bemusement occurs when a former parishioner states with unquestioned, but mistaken, certainty my rational for a policy. At such times, I feel the urge to say. "But that is not the way it was." Fortunately, I hold my tongue -- well, most of the time.
As much as we like to be in control of our actions and to be the interpreters of our motives behind those actions, what will be remembered about us slips from our control once we pass from the scene. We lose the ability to define ourselves and are defined by others. 'Reality' is what is in the minds of our survivors -- in loss of jobs and positions, in retirement and in death.
In our early years, we live our lives vigorously and constructively, focusing on getting ahead and building a 'good' life for ourselves and our families. In later years, we begin to think more of how we might enhance the human enterprise of which we are a part, that is, what legacy we will leave. However, when we think about others who are no longer active parts of our lives, we know that it is not always their personally prized accomplishments that we honor. Rather, tucked away and treasured in our memories are those times in which a person spoke some simple supportive words, reached out with a caring touch, made a check-up phone call -- or spent time rollicking in the grass.