As we get older, a different genre of unsolicited mail makes its way into our box. Last week, three organizations sent me a letter and a slick brochure to express their interest in my “legacy.” Two suggested an undefined “legacy gift” to help secure their future. The third proposed a planned giving program to ensure my legacy “lives on after your death.”
I read all three packages with interest because I have been pondering my legacy as I approach my 80thbirthday. But I was not thinking about it in terms of money. I was not thinking about how our financial and physical assets should be distributed. Rather, I was thinking about whether or not the life I have lived has had a beneficial effect on the people I love, on my communities, and on society as a whole. There are two kinds of legacies: one that distributes money and possessions, and the legacy of who we are.
Joan Chittister wrote about this in her book The Gift of Years: “What we are inclined to forget is that each of us leaves a legacy, whether we mean to or not. Our most impactful legacies are the quality of the lives we leave behind. What we have been will be stamped on the hearts of those who survive us for years to come. The only question is, will we cultivate that living legacy as carefully as bankers and tax collectors and lawyers do the material wills that distribute nothing but stocks and bonds and insurance policies and savings accounts?
What Are We Leaving Behind?
“What are we leaving behind? This is the question that marks the timbre of a lifetime. We leave behind our attitude toward the world. We are remembered for whether or not we inspired in others a love for life and an openness to all those who lived it with us. We will be remembered for our smiles and for our frowns, for our laughter and for our complaints, for our kindness and for our selfishness. We leave behind for all the world to see the value system that marks everything we do.”
Joan is right: Our most important legacy is not fiscal worth; it is the value system that guided our lives and left an indelible mark (for good or worse) on everything we did.
Financial advisors and elder attorneys stand ready to help us make decisions about writing wills and distributing left-behind resources. But each of us, Chittister wrote, is personally responsible for taking a lifetime legacy inventory, for looking “inside our own hearts and souls” and to ask ourselves whether or not the legacy we hope for is the legacy we are leaving. Then, to make amends where amends are needed. It is up to us alone to ensure that our legacy is what we want it to be.
Measuring Our Legacy
This legacy includes how we have nurtured our family, how we have treated other people, both people we love and those we do not love. It is measured in how we reach out to people who do not have our advantages, people who are sick, destitute, socially outcast, hungry and homeless.
Our legacy will show the extent to which we protected our natural environment, even when it required personal sacrifice. And, as we reach the life stage of elderhood, a crucial part of our legacy will include how we support the younger generation.
To my colleagues in the Silent and Boomer generations I say: Remember, the future is not ours. It belongs to our posterity. We should be supporting policies that support their hoped-for future, rather than desperately holding on to our ever-weakening grasp on the present.
I do not want my legacy to be selfishness—focusing not on the common good, but on my own good. I don’t, for instance, want to pay less for a gallon of gas if it means climate change will condemn my progeny to a life of rising seas, disastrously destructive storms, raging fires, surging floods, and shrinking food and water supplies.
Don’t Stiffen into the Wrong Shape
One of my inspirations is the work of Evelyn Underhill, an Anglican mystic. Even though her life began in later decades of the 19th century and ended near the midpoint of the 20th, her words uncannily offer ideas and solutions for those of us living in the 21st.
In Evelyn’s book, The Life of The Spirit and The Life of Today, she surveyed the vexing issues of her time, and wrote, “What is next? The answer simply is: Begin… Do not wait for some grand opportunity, and whilst you are waiting stiffen in the wrong shape. The grand opportunity may not be for us, but for the generation whose path we now prepare.”
This is the legacy I hope for: that my accumulated experiences, my lessons from both victories and defeats, help the X, Y, and Z generations open a path toward their vision of a common-good society. That would be enough for me to rest in peace.
Bill Jamieson’s career has included leadership positions in business, government, and education. He was also an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and his ministry centered around advocacy for low-income families and children.