Who Tells Your Story: Cementing a Legacy Through Good Work

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Though I’m extremely late to the party, I’ve recently been absolutely enthralled by the incredible Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, Hamilton. Even though every number is pretty flawless from beginning to end, the piece that sank its hooks into my mind the deepest was the final number — particularly the first few lyrical lines of that piece as sung by the character of George Washington: 

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known when I was young and dreamed of glory —you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

The Legacy of Your Grandparents

I’m not sure why, but upon hearing these lines, I immediately saw my grandparents’ faces — most now passed away, only one still living. They are the source or subject of so many wonderful stories and lessons. Each of them was the embodiment of benevolence. 

While considering their legacy, I thought about how tragic it was that their names may be completely lost to history in a generation or two — with nothing more for would-be historians to find than a few photographs, home movies, obituaries, and official documents. 

Visualizing their faces fading like those of Marty McFly’s family members in his pocketed photograph in Back to the Future, my first instinct was to take to my computer and begin writing down every experience and anecdote of my grandparents that I could shake loose from my memory to preserve their legacy. As I sat down to do this, I looked down at my own two hands on the keyboard — hands that resemble those of my mother’s father. I started to remember all of the ways I am like him and why that’s so. I began to see that a legacy is more than a written story or a name on a plaque, but is instead one’s ability to reach through time and touch the future — even if in a completely unidentifiable way. 

Your Own Legacy

This ability to reach across time got me thinking about my own legacy. Am I currently doing enough to cement a legacy? Is this even a worthwhile goal? I mean, ole Washington said so in Hamilton — we don’t control who tells our story. 

The actual Alexander Hamilton was obsessed with his legacy. As the performers and historians alike have told us, Hamilton was constantly writing like he was “running out of time” — emptying his mind onto thousands of pages through his quill. Despite this and all of his efforts, his legacy was largely preserved through his wife, Eliza, who took up the task of making heads or tails of his copious writings. 

But is that what made Hamilton’s legacy so well preserved and acclaimed — Eliza’s dutiful archiving of his written works? Partially, but one may argue that Eliza preserved her husband’s legacy by perpetuating the momentum of his spirit — channeling it into the good work that she feels he may have pursued had the bullet of Aaron Burr’s pistol not sent Alexander to an early grave. 

After Hamilton’s death at around age 47 or 48, depending on who you ask, Eliza lived to be 97 years old. In the time between his death and her own, she worked dutifully to preserve her late husband’s legacy — not only establishing the first private orphanage in New York City, as the musical mentioned, she also established the Hamilton Free School — which offered free private education for the children from low-income families. Hamilton himself had been an orphan whose private education had only been possible by an endowment from those in his boyhood community of Nevis — an island in the West Indies. 

Had her husband not been a Founding Father of the United States, his legacy likely still would have been preserved through the acts of Eliza — who performed good works that ensured her lasting legacy as well. 

Good Work Not Forgotten

Though many of us will never have our names emblazoned on a monument, plaque, or in a textbook, history recalls fondly the impact of good work in the world. This good work can range from serving one’s community, raising children to be compassionate citizens, or other acts that positively inspire future generations.  Activists, artists, civil servants, educators, healers, scholars, athletes, parents, family, and friends — all of these possess the capacity for good work that namelessly ripples through the ages long after the writing has faded from the monuments and textbooks. 

The Reward for Good Work

So, is cementing a legacy the reward for good work? No. A legacy is never realized within one’s lifetime — again, as Washington sang — you have no control…who tells your story. This good work is not performed for a paycheck, award, acclaim, or even a legacy. A legacy is the byproduct of good work. No, good work is performed because it is what the worker must do to remain a human being — to warm their bones and fill their days with purpose. 

Simply put by one of my favorite artists, Tom Sachs — 

The reward for good work is more work.

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