Recently I read the novel ‘Gilead,’ by Marilynne Robinson. The book, which was published in 2004 and won a Pulitzer Prize, is a deeply moving series of recollections by a congregationalist minister named John Ames. Ames, who at 76 years old is recollecting three-quarters of a century of life in Gilead, Iowa, wants to leave the book as a gift to his seven-year-old son, who he knows he will not live to see for much longer. Afraid that his son will not know the history of his family (including Ames’s father and grandfather), Ames writes to him a deeply moving account of forgiveness and race relations in the twentieth century. I was also surprised and heartened to see the favorable view of religion that was sustained throughout much of the book. It is always good to see a book of that kind be received with almost universal acclaim by a variety of different audiences.
One thing that the book did was set me thinking about the legacy that I will leave my own friends and family. I do not yet have children, but I certainly do one day plan to be a father. Will my children be proud of their father and of the legacy that he left them? Or will they shrink back from telling their friends about me, afraid that doing so will diminish their status in their friends’ eyes? A legacy is a powerful thing and ought not to be taken lightly. It can take many years to build up a good one and only a short amount of time to tear a good one down. I remember reading about Joe Paterno and how he spent the day after he was fired from the Penn State coaching position. Apparently he went home and wept on the couch for the entire day, telling friends and family members that he had worked his entire life to make the Paterno name mean something and that in one day everything had been lost.
There are many strategies and approaches to living one’s life. One of the best is to step back from the immediacies of life and to think each day about how one wants to live in light of long-term considerations – like one’s legacy to friends and family. None of us knows when our hour might come. None of us knows how much longer we have to contribute to this world. Gilead, a moving work in countless ways, is a highly recommended read because it is a way of stepping back and thinking about how one wants to spend one’s days. My own hope is that I will do so in part in light of the reflections of Pastor John Ames.