Considering Spock’s Legacy and Ours

Posted 03.02.2015

spock1When I looked earlier this morning, more than 1,000 people had left comments on The New York Times obituary of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Mr. Spock. Obviously, I haven’t read all of them, but I have looked at a few dozen. Many of them are quite moving in the way that they describe the impact that Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock had on their lives. Susan in Madison wrote that she’s a scientist at a major university and that as the news of Nimoy’s death spread:

“faculty office doors quietly closed for five to ten minutes, and then reopened, its occupant looking a little sheepish and bleary-faced. The role of Mr. Spock meant so much to many of us. Mr. Nimoy’s character made science cool, made being a scientist cool. Countless colleagues are STEM professionals because of him.”

A reader named Ron wrote that Spock “so inspired me as a child that I later went into nuclear submarines to do acoustic research then got my pilot’s license and flew for many years.”

Reading about Nimoy’s life and the impact that Spock had on so many leaves me thinking about the legacy we create with the life we live. The biggest insight for me on this came from Nimoy himself in a video interview he did for the Yiddish Book Center Wexler Oral History Project in which he describes the origin of the Vulcan salute (most often presented with the phrase, “Live long and prosper.”) You can watch it on the Times web site and you should because Nimoy tells the story masterfully.

It turns out that Nimoy first saw what became the Vulcan salute when he was a young boy taken to synagogue by his father and grandfather. The elders of the congregation conducted a mystical ceremony that ended with them extending their hands forward with the middle and ring fingers separated to make a V shape. It made a very strong impression on young Leonard.

Years later, Nimoy was shooting a Star Trek episode in which Spock was going to interact with other Vulcans for the first time in the series. He said to the director that they should have some kind of special greeting that Vulcans do. As he recalled in the interview, “Humans, we have these rituals, these things that we do. We shake hands, we nod to each other, we bow to each other, we salute each other. What do Vulcans do?”

Nimoy drew on the legacy that his father and grandfather bequeathed him and decided that the Vulcan salute would be a raised hand with the third and fourth fingers separated in a V.

In finishing the story, Nimoy recalled that:

“That just took off. It was amazing. Within days after it was on the air, I was getting it on the street. It’s been that way to this day. It’s almost 50 years later and people are still doing it. It just touched a magic chord. Most people to this day still don’t know what it’s all about. People don’t realize they’re blessing each other with this.”

Being present and paying attention – as a young boy and as an adult – enabled Leonard Nimoy to fully embody a character that changed lives in ways big and small. Some people chose career paths because of Spock, others have spent time extending a blessing to others without knowing it.

All of us, through being present and paying attention, have the opportunity to create legacies that can change lives. Sometimes we’ll clearly see the impact of that; most of the time we won’t. Some of us will have big platforms like an iconic television show to multiply the impact of our legacy; most of us won’t. All of it matters though.

As Spock himself might have said, live long, prosper and leave your legacy.