Research repeatedly indicates that adults in their 30s and 40s who are involved in creating something that will last beyond their lifetime enjoy a better quality of life until death in many ways. (Parenting, teaching, social justice activism or engaging in creative projects are ways of leaving one’s mark in the world after death.)
Can people in their early 20s already see themselves carving out a legacy? Gorman’s poem suggests the answer is yes. She reminds people that what they do (or don’t do) will shape the legacy future generations inherit: “We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation.”
Gorman’s poem speaks to the creative and leadership potential of youth. Her display of being part of a lasting legacy resonates with our experiences and some of our research.
Psychologist Erik Erikson popularized the idea that in middle age many adults become interested in leaving a legacy, but studies have found that many youth are also interested in creating something that lasts beyond their lifetime.
Research in literature and the meaning of narrative reveals how narrative shapes our relationship to the world around us.
Highly generative adults also tend to tell stories about their lives using what some psychologists call redemptive themes: a story with a negative beginning gains meaning through a positive outcome.
We are currently studying the life stories of 18- to 24-year-olds who have been nominated by community leaders as young people who have made lasting impacts. The young people in our study have received awards, represented Canada on international stages and founded organizations for social justice. Our research seeks to understand the relationship of their achievements to storytelling their and identity formation, and how these both inform legacy building.
In both the fields of psychology and literary studies, we are fascinated with how narratives shape our relationship to our present and inform social change.
The theme of redemption, like the presence of generativity, infuses passages in “The Hill We Climb” in both communal and personal references. As Gorman read:
“[with] Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.”
Gorman’s recitation also carved out a redemptive moment by reclaiming the Capitol steps where a violent insurrection occurred only two weeks before. Those involved opposed the democratic electoral process and the crowd was populated with signs, symbols and flags of white supremacist and extremist groups.
By inviting her audience to envision future acts of “hope and light” on those steps, she joined this event, its larger histories and its cultural and political contexts to a meaningful and optimistic shared experience. When she spoke, no divisions were erased, but she acknowledged the possibility that together we can create a world that is better, more equitable and just.
Such a redemptive capacity is found in adults who show a strong commitment to legacy building. It is also what we as researchers are looking for in our study of young leaders.
Journey through generations
Gorman is aware that she represents the living legacy shaped by those who came before her and that her legacy belongs to future generations. She told CNN she has a mantra she recites when she performs:
“I’m the daughter of Black writers. We’re descended from freedom fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.”