November 21, 2015

Is Leaving a Legacy Under Our Control?

What is a legacy? Most dictionaries define it as a gift of money or property for someone after you die. The second way to think of a legacy is something that has been achieved that continues to exist after someone's death. That is the form of legacy I'd like to explore as you move through your satisfying journey.

It would be a very rare person who doesn't want to be remembered after he or she is gone. As we age we understand how short life really is and that there are few opportunities for do-overs.


I have one life. What am I making of it? How would I like to be remembered?  Do I know what I would like to leave behind for others? These are questions that all humans ask themselves at some point. We have a very basic need to believe we have made a difference. A legacy is just that: something that can be pointed to that confirms you were here and you mattered. A satisfying retirement is great, but a strong legacy is something really worth striving for.

There are two basic types of legacies. The first involves tangible accomplishments. If you are an artist that's easy. Your paintings, sculptures or photographs will hang on a museum wall or grace people's homes for years into the future. If you are a singer, actor, or writer you will live on in your music, performances, or words.

Maybe your financial status is such that you can create an on-going scholarship at a favorite school or an endowment at the university you attended. You might be able to donate enough money to help fund on-going research into a serious disease. Maybe you established a volunteer organization that continues to help people for years into the future.

For someone who is handy with tools, maybe you built a vacation cabin in the woods, or a canoe that cuts gracefully through the water. Your family and relatives can enjoy what you made and think of you whenever they do.

The second type of legacy is the intangible kind. You have instilled a set of moral and ethical values in your children. You have treated loved ones and friends in such a way that when people remember you those memories are full of joy and fondness.

You have demonstrated through your life the importance of giving back to others, of leaving your little corner of the world just a bit better for you having been here. You have modeled a life worth living and are remembered by your actions, big and small, your beliefs, and your steadfastness. Years after you are gone, someone will mention your name and there will be a smile, or a fond memory, or a confirmation of how you spent your life's time. Maybe there will be the ultimate compliment when someone declares he would like to be like you were.

While both types of legacies have tremendous value, I think most of us have a better shot at creating a life worth remembering when we focus on the intangible characteristics. The good news: it is not too late to start. The bad news: too many of us never start.

The goal of a legacy can't be selfish. If so, it probably won't be very long-lasting. Even the person who donates $5 million to establish a scholarship fund is doing it because she believes her money can benefit more people if she uses it in this way. Will her name be associated with something good? Sure. But, that is not the primary motivator.

If you are remembered for teaching your children how to be responsible, caring, loving parents to their kids your legacy is worthwhile. If you instill a sense of civic responsibility in a child who goes on to help others for the rest of his or her life, you have created a legacy that is worthwhile.

Maybe your legacy is the guy who always smiled, who was always there to help someone when he was down, who loved others unconditionally. Maybe you were  the first to volunteer whenever your church needed help. You couldn't take off 2 years to join the Peace Corps so you always helped restock the food bank at an inner-city school. You were confined to a wheelchair after an accident. But, instead of being bitter and withdrawn you remained positive and upbeat. You affirmed that there were others in much worse shape than you.

All of us will be remembered for something. How would you like to be remembered for what you do while on this earth? How would you want your memory to affect others? Most of the answers are within your control. A legacy is built on beliefs and attitudes that are translated into actions. Turn whatever time you have left into a long-lasting legacy. Start today.



20 comments:

  1. Bob, I think you wrote this post with me in mind. I continue to struggle with the legacy I might be leaving behind. The easy one, in concept but probably not in practice, is instilling values in your kids. Unfortunately I was not given the pleasure of having off-springs. Thanks for giving me all those examples. Yeah, it seems I will be leaving a legacy or at least I hope so. Maybe not the million dollar endowment but at least a few of the less tangible ones. At least I hope so. In my mind if you don't think about your legacy then you probably haven't lived life to much of a degree beyond yourself.

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    1. I guess the reality is we all leave a legacy of some kind. I believe whether that legacy is a positive or negative one is very much in our control.

      Thanks, for being here, RJ.

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  2. Leaving a legacy is an interesting topic. For most our legacy will live on through our children. In our case we have an only child, and it appears that nature will not be gracing us with grandchildren. So our legacy could very well end with our daughter. There is nothing wrong with that in my mind, since in reality how many people are remembered for very long after their passing? Most that will have either been larger than life on the world scale (such as a Washington) or were known for some horrible deed (such as a Hitler). Not too many will have the opportunity of the former, and I daresay most will not want the disdain history has for the latter.

    We have done the best we can directly with our daughter since she is a grown adult, and we will continue to try to leave her with good memories of us. At the same time we will help people wherever we can, hopefully also leaving others with fond memories of the time they knew us.

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    1. Your description is probably fitting for most of us. Fond memories of a life well lived and people treated well is a legacy worth striving for.

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  3. Most of us leave our name carved into a stone and little more that outlasts those who remember us, and some pass on there genes. Keep the good work up Bob.

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    1. I plan on being cremated so I need something more than a headstone going for me.

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  4. An interesting question that all of us should be asking ourselves -- although I'm not sure it's any easier to create those intangibles worth remembering than it is to accumulate the tangible assets that we leave behind.

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    1. The intangibles are really the cumulative effect of a life well lived, aren't they? Even so, I do believe it is never too late to develop the parts of one's character that can have a positive effect on the world around us and the lives of our loved ones.....at least I hope so.

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  5. My dad was a bilateral amputee who left a legacy of service to the community. I do believe his amputations gave him permission to do that. Volunteering with the seniors' organization and the hospital auxiliary, fundraising for various community groups, offering rides to folks - activities that he didn't do when he had 2 legs. He did what he could after his amputations. That legacy of service and volunteerism lives in me. I think a lot of people are leaving legacies unconsciously, just living their lives, doing the best they can.

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    1. Your dad is a perfect example of my main point: we are capable of so much, if we just give ourselves "permission" to do so. Physical limitations only force us to adapt and find a new way to us all our remaining gifts.

      Thanks, Mona.

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  6. This made me think about how many struggling artists never enjoy the fruits of their labors while living, but their work becomes their legacy when they're gone. Even many very famous artists never received a fraction of what their work has become worth over time. But, truth is, our art is what we love and creating is what we do, so if my heirs get some money from anything I've done when I'm gone I'll be thrilled.
    I believe it is worse to leave our heirs in debt because we over stayed our time than to exit gracefully and let them move on.
    Thought provoking post.
    b

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    1. Certainly, if given the choice I would not want to bankrupt my family just to prolong my life for another few months with expensive medical care.

      If Betty is any indication, artists seem to create for themselves. If others like their work great. But, the process is satisfying in and of itself.

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  7. For the first time in history, many around the world today will leave a digital legacy for the generations that follow them. When I see a lot of the garbage spewed on Twitter and other forms of social media, I have to conclude that a lot of people either haven't stopped to consider their legacy while they still have a chance to shape it, or that they just don't care what kind of impression they leave behind once they're gone.

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    1. So true. In fact, in many cases those left behind don't have the legal right to delete or change things that are floating around in the Internet. Kind of like a permanent tattoo, our digital trail leaves its mark well after we are gone.

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  8. I think one of the satisfactions of a career in education is that I know I've left a legacy (of the intangible kind), having spent 4 decades shaping young people. When I retired, my department asked both current and former students to send messages which were then assembled in a book. I was amazed at how many of the former students said that I had shaped their lives more than I could ever know. A few even said that they had my voice in their heads and called on it when they needed to solve tough problems. Teaching may not be a well-paid profession, but it is rich in less tangible rewards. -Jean

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    1. My mom taught for over 40 years and had several of same reactions as you. She knows she influenced dozens, if not hundreds of kids over the course of her career.

      The job of teaching is about as important as it gets in shaping the future of our society, but receives little monetary or social support. Why, I haven't a clue.

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  9. I appreciate your take on the second type of legacy. Everything we do, on a daily basis, and everyone we have contact with, provides us with an opportunity to leave a positive legacy. Sometimes we never really know the impact we have on a person/situation. But by being true to ourselves and our beliefs, making sure we are being honest, caring and trustworthy, we are helping to alter life's events in a very positive way.

    I may not know the true impact of my actions and words on others around me. But by believing that I have an opportunity to enrich others' lives, I am creating a legacy that extends beyond my self.

    Looking back, I think of others in my life who impacted me in a very positive way. I was shaped by their words and actions. The legacy of these individuals lives on!

    This second type of legacy not only enriches the lives of those around us, it provides a very meaningful life for ourselves. Knowing that we are giving, loving, helping others (in both tangible and non-tangible ways) is one of life's greatest rewards!

    Great post Bob! Thanks, as always, for helping us to think through the important issues.

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    1. It would be interesting to find out how many people would say they would prefer the two different type of legacies I have identified. Many would probably pick the tangible one, feeling that money and resources would leave a longer lasting mark.

      But, as you noted, Carole, I personally believe the intangible type of legacy, one based on a person's life and interaction with others, is actually the one that has lasting power. Unless we are talking about Bill Gates-type wealth, the power of a human to influence the world around him is what true legacies are built on.

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  10. Wow Bob, I can't believe the timing of this post. A year and a half ago, my uncle was diagnosed with terminal, untreatable cancer. It was a gift that I knew this, I got to spend so much time with him over this time--with an urgency to get to know all his stories while I still had the chance. (It's not a coincidence that this period coincides with my dearth of blog postings.) This time was a gift! He just died on Saturday--the day you posted this. You put into words things I was just thinking about writing, to say at his memorial. Over the last several days I've received amazing notes from probably close to 100 people about how much my uncle helped them and how much he meant to them. And I was struck exactly by the point you are making here. THAT is his true legacy, not the money he leaves behind, not the thousands of newspaper articles he wrote. If I could even touch half as many hearts in the way that he did, I would consider my legacy a rich one.

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    1. What a perfect coda to the post and the comments, Syd. Thank you for sharing this very personal connection.

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