Purpose of life musings, our “legacy”

13 Mar

Last week Carol and I were on vacation, a much needed break from the routine!  Our main purpose was to visit Carol’s brother and wife in Lake Wales, Florida south of Orlando.  That was very relaxing and enjoyable and we it was great being with them.  On the way there we stopped at the Biltmore Estate and spent two days at Savannah, Georgia (more on that in another post).

The Biltmore Estate was built by “George Washington Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895. It is the largest privately owned home in the United States, at 135,000 square feet (12,500 m2) and featuring 250 rooms (and 43 bathrooms!). Still owned by one of Vanderbilt’s descendants, it stands today as one of the most prominent remaining examples of the Gilded Age, and of significant gardens in the Garden à la française and English Landscape garden styles in the United States. In 2007, it was ranked eighth on the List of America’s Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.”  (From Wikipedia)

The mansion has enormous spaces and perspectives!  They don’t allow photographs of the inside of the mansion and it was pouring rain and alternately snowing (in North Carolina!) outside so I only have one picture.  It was too early for any gardens to be in bloom.  From the one picture I was able to take, you can get a feeling for the perspective by looking at the “ant sized” people going into the mansion.  (Double click on the picture to enlarge)


As we were taking the “ear phone” tour of the mansion, I began to think about the world view of George Vanderbilt.  He was part of a family which had amassed a huge fortune through steamboats, railroads, and various business enterprises. George “inherited $1 million from his grandfather and received another million on his 21st birthday from his father. Upon his father’s death, he inherited $5 million more, as well as the income from a $5 million trust fund. He ran the family farm at New Dorp and Woodland Beach, now the neighborhood of Midland Beach on Staten Island, New York where he had been born, then lived with his mother in Manhattan until his own townhouse at 9 West 53rd Street was completed in 1887. The Vanderbilt family business was operated by his older brothers. This left George to spend his time in intellectual pursuits.  An art connoisseur and collector, George filled his mansion with Oriental carpets, tapestries, antiques, and artwork, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and James Whistler, as well as a chess set that had belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte.” (From Wikipedia)

I wonder what George Vanderbilt’s world view was.  Did he ever ponder the eternal perspective in relation to his activities?  He knew eight languages and was obviously intelligent.  George and his wife, Edith, were very generous, supporting the local church and I’m sure funded many other charities.  But to what end was the house built?  To spend so much of your time and treasure to construct the largest privately built home in the country is a very worldly pursuit!  What was his motivation?  Was it a monument to himself?   Wikipedia says at Biltmore George lead the life of a “country gentlemen and spent his time in intellectual pursuits”.  He certainly couldn’t take it all with him when he “died of a heart attack after an appendectomy” at age 52.  The estate stands as a monument to his dreams and life’s work, something which is his legacy and it lives beyond his life.  Is that were our significance comes from?   Libraries, government buildings and highways are named after people who donate money.  Is that were we get our significance?  What of the millions of ordinary people in Haiti or India or Kenya who live life for a while and die in obscurity?  Are they any less significant than George Vanderbilt?  He inherited most of what he had and I guess you can say he put it into building a lasting legacy for his family.   But to what end?  Today the estate is privately owned by George’s grandson, William Cecil, who has preserved the estate and opened it to the public.  So, the masses can still view and be amazed at what he built.

From my musings about this I see two levels of thinking about the “legacy” we leave after our life is over.  On one level George Vanderbilt left a monument of the years he spent building and caring for the “largest privately owned home.”  Is that a worthy pursuit in life?  What does a leaving a legacy really involve?  Presidents of the United States are always aware of the legacy they will leave from their time in office.  The world’s recognition of a job well done, or some substantial building or road named in our honor, or the recognition a famous author or actor receives are all fading.  As the Bible states, they will all “burn” in the end.  1 Corinthians 3:11-15 says:  “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ. Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw.  But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward.  But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames.”  The Biltmore Estate will not last into eternity.  It consists of earthly stuff.   The fact of my Parkinson’s disease is also temporary, earthly, a “thorn” I need to deal with in this life, but not for eternity.

On the other level, God and people are eternal, nothing else is.   The purpose I pursue with my photography is to show the beauty of God’s creation and a few of my pictures may last beyond my years on this earth.  But in the end they are meaningless.  That is the main theme of Ecclesiastes where Solomon says “work…all of it is meaningless.”  But he concludes with the conviction:  “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” The real legacy I leave is my love for God and the impact I can have on our children and people around me.  In a very real way my earthly reward is the legacy Carol and I are leaving through our adult children.  And my urgent and heart felt desire is for all of us to spend eternity together in Heaven!

I don’t have any brick and mortar statues or houses dedicated in my honor which will outlast my life on this insignificant planet hanging in the vast universe.  My legacy, our legacy, is our love for the God of the universe and the people we interact with daily.  Those interpersonal relationships and our dependence on Jesus’ sacrifice for each of us will be our eternal legacy!

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One Response to “Purpose of life musings, our “legacy””

  1. Doug Custenborder March 17, 2011 at 12:56 am #

    Gary-I enjoyed reading your heartfelt thoughts. Your reflections on eternity vs. our earthly legacy was inspiring. Doug p.s. hope all of us and all of our kids can hang out with God in heaven someday. I share your dream. Love, Doug

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