I sat for a long time after my friend Marcus Raskin’s recent memorial service at the Historic Synagogue in downtown Washington, taking in the people passing by, standing for hugs, remembering the words of those who loved and revered Marc. For hours, tributes had flowed with tears for this visionary co-founder of the Institute for Policy Studies—from the old lions of the New Left, guardians of the anti-war and civil rights crusades, the “civilizing movements”; and from the younger champions of the environment and gender equality, whom Marc had nurtured and cajoled and inspired. After a while, I found myself focusing on the concluding, epic eulogy from Marc’s son, Jamie, a first-term Maryland congressman, on the meaning of “legacy.”
Jamie, like his father, is brilliant, a devoted defender of democracy, indifferent to fashion (very much like his father), and slyly funny. He shared seven of the lessons that his father had taught him. “I don’t accept,” Marc had apparently said during his time in the Kennedy administration, “being called ‘the conscience of the White House.’ It gives others a license to ignore their own conscience.” And another: “Spoil children with wisdom.” And this one, which seemed to me most native to Marc, the piano as well as political prodigy: “No matter how much background noise there is, follow the music of your heart.”
As I age, people speak to me more often about legacies—what am I or they going to leave behind? What will others receive from us? But sitting in the early evening warmth of the vaulted old synagogue, I felt the more intimate, active connection of the older meaning of the Latin word legatus: “the person designated.” What, I asked myself, had Marc, always generous with advice and support, designated for me?
I could still hear him encouraging, inviting, nudging me to write more about my vision and my work. He believed in the model of self-care, group support, and community-building that I developed; in its capacity to reverse and prevent chronic illness and to make our medical system as caring, compassionate, and effective as he felt it should be. Every time I returned from Kosovo, or Gaza, or Israel, or Haiti, or an Indian reservation, he was eager to hear stories of trauma healing, to explore what went well and also, of course, to help me understand what had stumped me.
And always there were partnerships to suggest with long-term Raskin friends in politics or public health. “You have to,” he would say, with great and genial emphasis, “meet so and so,” or, turning to his wife, Lynn, “Let’s have a dinner so this or that person can meet Jim.”
And then there were the exemplary designations from the melody of Marc’s life, the standards he set: his limitless and intense curiosity; his ready welcome to the needy and marginalized, as well as to friends; the joy he took in playing, teaching, and learning—definitely on a level field—with his young grandchildren; and a capacity to laugh at himself that did not fade with his health. Sitting in a pew in the synagogue, I could feel myself trying these designations on, wearing a legacy that demanded fidelity, even as it provided comfort and warmth.
And that led me to think of others dear to me who have died; wondering what they might have wished or designated for me. From Rick deLone, my college roommate, less worry and more joy. Rick never met a challenge—on the college wrestling mat or in Philadelphia politics—that didn’t please him, or a challenger who made him back down. William Alfred, my beloved Harvard professor, left an example of generosity, giving freely to all who came to his door—the homeless men with their hands out, great and troubled poets looking for kind, commonsense counsel, and present and former students and seekers like me. And from Marshall Berman who, a bit like Marc, always encouraged me to question my assumptions—about politics and people, my work and my life—a little more closely.
As I breathe in the legacies of Marc and my other friends, accepting what they’ve designated to me and encouraged in me, I feel honored by them and honor-bound to live out what they’ve left to me.
I know Marc would have enjoyed this experiment and would have joined me in encouraging you to try it, too. Here it is again: consider accepting and learning from the legacies of those you’ve loved and admired. Become aware of who they were to you and what they may have designated for you. Let this generous, friendly designation grow inside you, become a part of you.
As you do, you will honor the dead, celebrate your own life, and, along with Marc and your own dear ones, serve and teach the rest of us.
James S. Gordon MD, a psychiatrist, is the founder and executive director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine and the author, most recently, of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey out of Depression.
This article was included in the July 2018 print edition of the Washington Spectator.