As a kid, I remember one night watching the news with my parents. A man had jumped into an icy river to save a family whose car had skidded off the road. When asked by the news reporter why he did it, he replied, “It’s what you’re supposed to do—isn’t it?” Whenever any adult spoke like that, my kid antenna would go way up and I would listen.
In my kid-world, adults were divided into two categories. The ones who spoke to you as child with a mixture of half, three-quarter, and almost full truths, and the other adults who really leveled with you—the “real” ones. And boy, you knew who was who. Like most children do.
That guy who jumped in the water didn’t hesitate or think about it. He didn’t think about how cold the water was. Or if he might get hurt saving the people. He just did it.
And his response was the same. It was simple with no hesitation. Almost child-like. Maybe that’s what I responded to in that moment. The simple nature of doing the right thing.
I wondered, as a kid, if that moment came along would I have jumped into the icy water and saved those people? Would I, could I, do the right thing at the right moment?
Life will sometimes give you THE Test–a singular moment in one’s life that will define your entire life’s legacy. Many veterans in war encounter this test. As do firemen or policemen. You never know when you’ll be given THE Test. And the only way to pass it is to do it—to do the right thing.
But mostly THE test is a series of smaller tests strewn throughout one’s life. Returning a lost wallet or purse to someone. Going out of your way to help someone cross the street or open a door. There’s no reporter to ask you why you did it. You did it because it’s the right thing to do.
Strangely, doing the right thing is not difficult. It’s almost instinctual. Like saying thank you or please. It’s the way you’re raised. It’s about your values. It’s the way you act when no one is around to praise you or judge you. You don’t get an “attaboy” or “attagirl.” You do it because the golden rule is more than a dictate. It’s an action—about walking your talk. It’s about character. That which comes from within because you don’t walk someone else’s talk.
A life lived in this way will have few regrets for you never have to calculate what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it, or who you’re going to do it for. That is a legacy worth striving for.
But when you calculate, you think. You consider risks and rewards. It means doing the right thing for a reason. And not just because it’s the right thing to do.
If you have to weigh whether or not to do the right thing, then you’ve already not done it.
This weighing the short-term calculation of one’s short-term interest is called expediency. Expediency and legacy don’t play together. It’s the short term vs. the long term. It’s convenience vs. character.
The Bible, as usual, is more eloquent in this equation, “For what profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his own soul.”
We, as a country, are at a singular soul-defining moment.
The first choice is the legacy of expediency—choosing a calculated moment built upon the risks and rewards for the sake of some immediate and self-serving survival.
The second choice is not choosing—because you don’t have to. You made the choice long ago by choosing to live a life defined by the phrase, “It’s what you’re supposed to do.”
100 men and women of our senate were given THE test—the singular moment that will define their life’s legacy. And how they decided now reverberates through us a million times over. For their decision—their test—ultimately belongs to us all, and thus we all must take this test together—a communal legacy.
I discovered in the writing of my book, The Legacy Letters, that legacy is not some archaic word that only connotes the sweep of your life either at the end or when you’re dead. You live your legacy every single moment of your life. You especially live it when there is one single moment to do so. The moment you jump in the icy river because that’s what you’re supposed to do—because it’s the right thing to do.
How hard is it to do the right thing? It can be very hard—if you calculate. You might lose your job. Or your friends. You might be wounded by shameless accusations or lies. Or you might even put yourself in harms way. But ultimately, you know you did the right thing, and you can live with that the rest of your life. Nobody can take that from you. That’s your reputation to others. That’s your character to yourself. Which is one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself in this life. Owning yourself.
One moment, and your legacy is carved for the rest of your life. One moment, amidst a million million moments in your life to not think, to not calculate— but to do.
In The Legacy Letters, a father, who would never live to see his son conveys to him what it means to become a man:
“Becoming a man means doing the right thing even though it may be hard or difficult. Boys do what is easiest. A man does what is right, whether easy or not.”
Or as one man, at one monumental moment in time said, “It’s what you’re supposed to do—isn’t it?
AUTHOR BIO: Carew Papritz is an educational thought-leader, literacy advocate, and author of the multi-award-winning book, The Legacy Letters. Through his YouTube videos (including the I Love to Read series) and events (like the annual literacy-driven charity drive The Great Book Balloon Launch), he spreads the love of reading and learning to people of all ages. Papritz has made a global impact by being an advocate for literacy and teaching future generations about the importance of legacy.
Papritz’s writing has been published in a number of media outlets including Huffpost, Inc., Reader’s Digest & First Time Parent Magazine.