This has been a week for thinking about legacy.
If you have followed my recent writings, you know that I have been reading, thinking, and writing extensively about the midlife passage. Far from being a crisis or a regression, this is a rich time of reflecting on one’s life, settling restless questions of identity, and finding a north star for the rest of one’s life.
I am mesmerized by men and women who find their way through this passage into a sense of joyful vocation in the second half of life. They settle into themselves, find that one thing they were meant to do with their lives, and give themselves wholeheartedly to it.
All the authors I have been savoring recently—David Whyte, Jerry Colonna, Parker Palmer, Richard Rohr, David Brooks—describe life in two acts. In the first act we are, as Brooks writes, “ambitious, strategic, and independent.” We test our wings. We set out from home, try new things, build identities for ourselves. We work tirelessly and anxiously to acquire the elements of a well-lived life, which for most of us includes a spouse or partner, a career, a home, and children. This is a restless and exploratory season in which we remain “mobile and lightly attached,” which is partly out of necessity, given both our uncertainty about our own selves and our place in a dynamic, mobile world. We finally reach a place where, successful or not in our striving, we begin to question everything that has brought us here.
Then comes the middle passage, and for the fortunate and reflective among us, an arrival into the second act. For Brooks, the essence of this second act is commitment, which might be made to a vocation, a spouse or family, a philosophy of faith, or a community—and likely all of the above. He writes:
A commitment is falling in love with something and then building a structure of behavior around it for those moments when love falters.
Commitment entails making choices and living with them. Brooks writes that people who make such commitments “are not keeping their options open. They are planted.” Paradoxically, it is the very act of foreclosing options that allows us to live deeply and wholeheartedly. If first act living is a frenzied pursuit, second act living begins with surrender–not in the sense of giving up, but in the rich sense of giving oneself over to something larger. When we meet these people, we find that their lives have a kind of serenity. They know who they are, what they stand for, and what they are meant to do in the world. Their lives become “relational, intimate, and relentless.”
A life of commitment
On Friday, I attended a memorial event for Dr. Stephen “Chef” Chiabotti, a long-time professor at the school where I serve. Steve spent thirty years in the Air Force, culminating as Commandant and Dean of the School of Advanced Air & Space Studies (SAASS), which has a mission of educating strategists for the Air Force, Space Force, and nation. He spent sixteen more years at the school as a civilian.
Steve had a varied and successful career. In his first act, he was a pilot and found a deep sense of purpose as a flight instructor and then an academic instructor. During his years on Active Duty he also developed deep expertise in wrangling bureaucracy.
The midlife passage rarely means a decisive break with the past; for most, it means a ripening of capacities, relationships, skills and interests that we acquire in the first act. That was certainly true of Steve, who leveraged his expertise in teaching and navigating bureaucracy when he transitioned into his second act: committing to SAASS.
SAASS was where Steve made his home and hearth, and the memorial event was a testimony to his legacy. By planting himself in one small school for two decades, he shaped generations of Air Force leaders—providing them with a rich education, mentorship, critical thinking skills, wisdom, and intellectual humility at critical moments of their careers. More than 60 people joined via Zoom from across the world, a significant number of whom were general officers. Steve’s mastery of bureaucracy paid dividends in many of their lives; attendees shared story after story of Steve’s intervention in their careers to protect them and open up opportunities at decisive moments. Steve’s life was a powerful example of how the strategic skills one develops in the first act of life can be harnessed to serve second act purposes.
I personally was a beneficiary of Steve’s generosity and talent; after an eight-month gridlock in which multiple general officers could not break through an administrative logjam to get me into the assignment we knew was right, Steve cooked up a solution and made it happen. All the work I did at DIU flowed from that assistance.
I barely knew Steve outside of work, but it seems clear through others’ stories that he made equally strong commitments to his family, friends, and community.
Montgomery, Alabama is, to be candid, not the first place where most Air Force officers would choose to commit themselves. Steve did. By planting himself at SAASS, Steve made Montgomery his home, and he made his home a place of community.
His cooking was legendary, and cooking was an excuse to bring people together. Shaylyn Romney Garrett writes, “There’s a unique sort of bonding that is initiated when we provide sustenance to others.” She describes sharing meals as a universal human experience that joins people even across languages and cultures—an experience we have largely lost in our individualized Western culture. Steve pushed back on this relentless individualism, providing meals for innumerable SAASS events and frequently opening his home for good food and fellowship. I enjoyed his hospitality at his home more than once.
Steve was taken far too soon, just a few years into retirement at 69. I am sure I am not the only one who felt compelled to consider the passage of time, the uncertainty of our span on this earth, and the legacy we each will leave.
A well-lived life is a life of commitments, and Steve lived well. By committing himself to SAASS, to his family and friends, and to Montgomery, Steve left a powerful legacy—not merely a career, not merely a list of achievements, but generations of men and women who are better leaders and human beings for having known him.