In John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem A Legacy it’s clear that he wants to be remembered for his friendship, although, together with his mentor, William Lloyd Garrison, he spent a large part of his life fighting against slavery and is remembered today more for his poetry than for anything else. If, as Lucretius said more than two thousand years ago, we are no more than a bundle of swirling atoms, it’s surprising that we have such a strong desire to leave a legacy, to make a difference, but we do.
Friend of my many years!
When the great silence falls, at last, on me,
Let me not leave, to pain and sadden thee,
A memory of tears,
But pleasant thoughts alone.
Of one who was thy friendship’s honored guest
And drank the wine of consolation pressed
From sorrows of thy own.
I leave with thee a sense
Of hands upheld and trials rendered less,
The unselfish joy which is to helpfulness
Its own great recompense.
The knowledge that from thine,
As from the garments of the Master, stole
Calmness and strength, the virtue which makes whole
And heals without a sign.
Yea more, the assurance strong
That love, which fails of perfect utterance here,
Lives on to fill the heavenly atmosphere
With its immortal song.
Is a legacy simply a way of purchasing immortality or of wrestling some significance from a meaningless world? Whatever the reason(s) the need to leave a legacy of some kind appears to be an integral part of what it means to be human. As a result the issue even makes its way into the financial planning process. One of the questions we regularly ask clients is the following:
“Now imagine that you are eighty years old and it’s the last day of your life. Reflect on the texture of your life. What gave you the greatest satisfaction? What gave you the confidence that your life had meaning – that you had made a difference?”
The point of the question is not to look back but to look forward, to get the client to compare the life they are currently living with the life they would need to live to reflect the legacy they want to leave behind.
A legacy can be a life well-lived that inspires and positively influences others, like the lives of Steve Jobs and Mother Teresa, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. As in the film Mr. Holland’s Opus, children can be our legacy, the notes in our magnum opus, or even a blog…
Jews have long had a tradition of bequeathing a spiritual legacy either in the form of a codicil to a conventional will or as a separate document. The purpose of these ethical wills is to transmit personal reflections and the motivating values and events in one’s life experience. Such documents have now moved into mainstream financial and estate planning and a small cottage industry has grown up to help individuals write their own ethical wills. In the book So That Your Values Live On – Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them the authors point out that you can learn a great deal about yourself in the process of writing an ethical will and they quote the example of someone who tried to write a letter to his family but found he couldn’t because he realized they were no longer a family.
Our stories are too valuable not to pass them on to our children. Immigrants know this only too well as they struggle to convey to often unbelieving and/or uncaring children the life they left behind, the hardships, challenges and incomprehension they faced in their adopted country and the values that kept them going. Write down your stories because one day your children will be ready to read them and by so doing you might be able to help them make the most important decision of their lives. You might be able to get them to stop and consider what they are living for.
“I am convinced that the greatest legacy we can leave our children are happy memories: those precious moments so much like pebbles on the beach that are plucked from the white sand and placed in tiny boxes that lay undisturbed on tall shelves until one day they spill out and time repeats itself, with joy and sweet sadness, in the child now an adult.” Og Mandino