While I was at BYU years ago one of my best friends asked me to go with him and his wife to Cedar City to the Utah Shakespearean Festival. His wife’s father had served a mission with the founder, Fred Adams, and her family had gone frequently over the years since Adams founded the festival.
Thirty-four years later, I still go to the festival each summer with the same group of friends. So when I learned that Fred Adams passed away February 5th at the age of 89, I mourned because of his influence on my life. I was particularly impressed by the human Fred Adams portrayed at his funeral.
Fred’s passing is just the most recent of six that have had an impact on me over the past year. I have long admired Fred’s vision and persistence in creating an institution that benefits the lives of hundreds of thousands. Part of me has a longing to create something as significant as the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
His death followed close on the passing of Clayton Christensen. He too was someone lauded as much for how he treated the individual as his accomplishments. [I found this podcast tribute notable for pointing out that Christensen practiced what he preached at work as well as at Church.] Like Adams, I admired Christensen for his accomplishments and for his integrity.
These losses were significantly less personal than others I experienced. Last year a neighbor, who I frequently visited and tried to help, passed away. He was a holocaust survivor who was suspicious of everyone and trusting of no one. While I knew him his life was marked by self-imposed poverty and near-isolation. He died alone, had no funeral and just two of us attended his burial. Also last year an elderly sister in our ward passed away. While she had family at her side, they bickered and fought over details of her treatment and who got what of her few things.
In contrast, the passing of my father and my father-in-law last year were loving and peaceful. My father-in-law passed away first, near the same time as my neighbor and as the woman in our ward. He will always be remembered as someone who thought carefully before he spoke, and who was kind to everyone. His funeral was a celebration of his life.
My father passed away December 16th, following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. While helping to clean out his home last year before its sale, I was struck by the photos and recognitions on his office wall—pictures of him with the government figures he worked with—George Romney, Gerald Ford, James Watt, Warren Burger—as well as with the church authorities he knew and served alongside.
Looking at that wall I felt a sense of loss and futility. I know these remembrances and achievements gave my father pleasure, and a sense of the value of his life. Is this how we measure the worth of a person? I thought of the lines from Kipling:
Far-called, our navies melt away;On dune and headland sinks the fire:Lo, all our pomp of yesterdayIs one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Somehow I don’t feel the same pride about my father’s recognitions and memories—or at least my feelings are very mixed. The rational, secular part of me sees that my father was at best a bit player in the drama of history. And the part of me who loved my father sees that these things weren’t really who he was, and don’t really matter.
My neighbor’s only wall hanging was a certificate of his service in the US Army. The elderly sister who passed away last year had pictures of family and a singer she loved. My father-in-law’s home was filled with pictures of family. My own home is filled with a cluttered mixture of family pictures and art1.
What kind of legacy should we look for then? What should we be hanging on our walls?
I have a dislike for words like “legacy” and “heritage”. They portray a certainty about who we are and what our past is about that gives me discomfort. I find it irritating that they get used so much around the U.S. (especially in Utah and in parts of the South). These words need a modifier — something to indicate what kind of legacy or heritage we are talking about. They can be both good or bad. Legacy and heritage exist regardless; and like human beings they are almost always a mixture of good and bad things. No one wants to celebrate a bad legacy. And yet in much of the southern US celebrating the past also means celebrating a legacy of hate and a heritage of fear.
So I’m still mixed in how I feel about these things. Part of me wants to save the things from my father’s wall. And part of me wants very much to establish something that makes a positive difference in the lives of others—like Fred Adams and Clayton Christensen. And I’m still pulling apart my motivations for this: is this my pride? my vanity? or is it really about helping others?
I suppose it could be worse; I could be certain about my motivations.