Retirement strikes me as a particularly privileged occasion because it provides us with a space in which to consider legacy. While I have not experienced this moment, I have watched those around me who have experienced it. And as a daughter, colleague, and friend listening to those contemplating their legacy, I have been profoundly moved. I have watched my father finish a career in thoracic surgery only to embrace a new path as a local historian of medical practices in early New England. In the past weeks, I have wondered at and pondered regularly E.O. Wilson’s simple yet somehow mysterious statement of this summer--that, after over fifty years at Harvard, he was going home to Alabama to start a new life. And I have been struck by the struggle of my colleague, a pioneering feminist, who told me on the day of her retirement party that she realized the battles she thought she had won still had to be fought, over and over again, by those women who followed after.
We rarely understand how difficult the question of legacy is until we try to contemplate it ourselves. It seems to me that legacy is both fragile and fierce. It is fragile because it is never what we think it is. Legacy emerges as a surprising pattern, not at all the pattern we thought we were drawing with our lives. Indeed, the legacies we imagine and the legacies we create are so often two different things. The ones we imagine are bound in some way by our past expectations, the expectations of those around us, and the institutions we have lived in. And occasionally we do create the legacies that we have always imagined.
But the legacies that surprise us are perhaps the more revealing: The ones which emerge in a letter from a student we had long forgotten, whose Duke of an offhand remark we made happened to shape his life. The legacy we hear about from a colleague, who has observed and been inspired by an intellectual temperament we did not even know we had. The legacy created by an article, a piece of music, an experimental protocol that has had a scholarly shelf-life far longer, and different, than we had anticipated. These are the unimagined, accidental legacies that we create—the traces of our being in the world that we are unconscious of making but which contain the essence of who we are.
And legacies are fierce because they are often something more than the sum of their parts. They are not just built by slow, deliberate movements--although they cannot exist without such movements. The best legacies are ones that emerge from fiery passions that must burn strong over a lifetime. These are the fiery passions that may, for a time, attach themselves to institutions like Duke and help make them excellent. But they also burn without those institutions, in different stages of life, with equal intensity and perhaps even more freedom.
There is, then, in the consideration of a legacy a fragile and fierce understanding of newness—of what must be begun as well as what is being finished. There is a poem, “Late Ripeness” by Cezlaw Milosz, which speaks elegantly to this idea, and I share parts of it with you here:
Not soon, as late as the approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.
One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.
And the countries, cities, gardens, the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer, ready now to be described better than they were before. ….
….we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.
Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago -
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef - they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.
I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.
So, with Milosz, let us thank you for remaining with us as workers in the vineyard. May you thrive as you attend now to those moments from yesterday that are waiting for fulfillment. And thank you most of all for those fragile and fierce legacies that you will continue to bestow up on us.