Protesters pull down statues with regularity now. Commemorations of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, Brigadier General Albert Pike in Washington, D.C., and Ulysses S. Grant and Francis Scott Key in San Francisco have been removed. In New Haven, Connecticut, a statue of Christopher Columbus took a hit in a real-life scene almost lifted from an episode of "The Sopranos."
President Trump has promised long prison sentences for any toppler. Anyone charged under the statute that Trump said cited in order to prosecute these protesters will face one of 200 federal judges — at least who've been approved during the Trump presidency. It's the first time in four decades that no appellate court vacancies wait to be filled.
Well after Trump is gone, defendants will appear before one of the judges confirmed during his administration in courthouses that will likely have no statues of Christopher Columbus, any military figure associated with the Civil War or anyone associated with white supremacy.
Some legacies are being marred. Others are being made.
It's easy to get sucked into the debates about the merit of these decisions as if we don't need to tend to our own legacies. Historical benefaction isn't limited to presidents, generals, politicians or other famous and wealthy people. In fact, the word "legacy" is just shorthand for the reasons why regular people do what they do every day.
The best way to goad people into thinking about their legacy is a parable from Sufi masters. In it, a traveler comes upon three stonecutters working at their trades. He asks one: "What are you doing?" The first answers that he's cutting stone to feed himself to come back the next day and cut more stone. The traveler asks the second stonecutter the same question and he replies that he's cutting stone to make money to feed his children who will grow big and strong and make him proud one day.
The traveler repeats the question for the third stonecutter who says "I'm building a cathedral that will last thousands of years."
Three people doing the exact same thing gave three different answers about that activity. The distance of their personal worldview is what separates them; the third stonecutter is able to telescope out from the day, even from his lifetime, to see how his contributions will affect future generations.
The stonecutters' experience of their work — and their experience of themselves — varies vastly, because of the way they understand their purpose and their legacy. The third stonecutter understands why his presence in the world matters even if he's cutting stone. That's why, according to people who explain the parable, he's happier than the other two.
While the president doubtless lacks his humility, Trump thinks like the third stonecutter. He doesn't see the appointment of judges as a series of administrative acts; he knows he's shaping the future. The same is true for people knocking statues over. They're not removing a sculpture; they're building a landscape without the iconography of racism.
Pondering one's legacy during a pandemic, one with a climbing death toll and possibly more orders to stay at home and not work, might be painful. But I don't think there's a better time. Whether we perish from the novel coronavirus or not, we will die and the world will continue with or without a memory of us. The pause in working gives us the space to ask ourselves why we were doing what we were doing before this pesky virus sidelined us.
Were you answering phones or were you facilitating communications between lawyers fighting to get someone off death row? Are you delivering a package or assuring that patients with diabetes have the necessary testing supplies? Do you manage a restaurant or do you provide space for people to convene with their families and celebrate milestones?
While deviants can always reframe even dastardly acts to justify them -— they can sanitize larceny as redistribution and murder as the elimination of evil — that doesn't take the value from this exercise. Maybe the cathedral built by the third stonecutter became a site for Medieval torture; we don't know. But the events unfolding in the United States — and even the division they sow — show us that history will correct itself much more quickly than it has before. That's a good thing.
As statues come down and judges go up, don't get caught up in these discussions of other people's legacies. Ask yourself what you're doing. If you can't envision your impact like the third stonecutter did, then it's time to do something else.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. Columns share an author's personal perspective.