On Joe Paterno, Life, Art, & Legacy

We all want to leave a legacy. We all want our lives to matter. Yet, that’s not always our call.

I thought about this today, when I heard about the death of former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno. And I thought about the art we create, the lives we lead, and the stories people will tell about us.

Joe Paterno
Photo credit: daveyin (Creative Commons)

Although I’m not much of a college football fan, the story of one man’s mistake and the legacy he will leave resonated with me. It made me take notice of how I’m living my life and the importance of a single decision.

I don’t know how people will remember Paterno, but I fear he will go down in history for how his career ended.

Today, I made my debut on The Huffington Post with this article: A Lesson on Legacy from Joe Paterno. Here’s an excerpt:

Joe Paterno, the former Penn State football coach, died today at the age of 85. His life was full of impressive accomplishments, including two national championships, five victories in major bowl games, and the record for most victories for a major-college coach. Unfortunately, he may be most remembered for a child sex scandal for which he was fired in November of 2011.

In writing the piece, I came across a quote from an interview Paterno did with USA Today: “I didn’t know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was.”

I thought that was interesting. So while still trying to honor the man’s memory, I wrote about what we can learn from his life (failures and all).

Paterno was a humanities guy. He studied English at an ivy league university and loved the Aeneid. He saw his work as that of an educator. He had an impressive love for literature, which affected his outlook on life.

Interestingly, his story very much follows that of a classical hero with one tragic flaw that ultimately leads to his downfall.

There is a lesson here worth noting. For all of us who consider ourselves artists and heroes of our own stories — people who want to do work that leaves an impact — we need to understand something:

Sometimes, tragedy befalls us. Sometimes, bad things happen. How we respond to what life brings is what forms character and defines legacy.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I caught the film Frida on TV today — which tells the amazing and painful story of the 20th century Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. Her life was riddled with both physical and emotional suffering.

It left me thinking about the tortured lives of artists and how what we’re remembered for is not completely in our control. Nonetheless, it’s our responsibility to be faithful with our gifts, speak up for those without a voice, and trust the outcome.

Did Paterno do everything right? I don’t know. Should Frida have left her womanizing, lying husband for good? I can’t say for sure. But looking at them both makes me want to be sure I do all I can with what I have.

[T]here is a greater lesson to be learned by this man’s life and from any hero who falls. The lesson is this: You cannot delegate influence. You cannot defer your story to another. It is yours and yours alone.

Read the rest here.

Have you ever made a tragic mistake, because you trusted others to do the right thing?

*Photo credit: daveyin (Creative Commons)