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Many of us will have said and/or heard someone say “if I die today, I will die happy.” Same goes for the line “I don’t want anyone to wear black to my funeral.” Some of us tell loved ones the kind of music we want to be played at our funeral. Some of us talk seriously about the distribution of our possessions via a will while others do so lightheartedly (“I’ll leave you all my debt!” is one I’ve used myself).
What most of us don’t talk, or even think about, is the legacy we want to leave behind when we die. I’m not referring to a legacy of monetary value. I’m talking about a legacy that’s intangible; one that’s intimately related to who we are, what we value, what we believe and how we live.
The title of this post isn’t meant to be morbid. It’s intended to be cathartic. The point is that there are many times when we need to think about the end of something in order to work out how we want to deal with the beginning of it. It’s one way to avoid having regrets. It’s also an acknowledgement that our identities are deeply rooted in what kind of people our parents are/were, whether our relationships with them are positive or not.
Being an intentional parent requires you to think about the legacy you want to leave behind for your children. It requires you to then actively plan it, build it and solidify it. For some of us, this will be liberating, for it gives us a template to follow that will let us draw meaning from life and pass it on. For others, it will be confronting because it forces us out of comfort zones to take a good hard look at ourselves and the way we’re living our lives. It might be both.
When speaking about legacy, people often say they want to work hard so they have money or property to leave their children to secure their future. That’s a beautiful sentiment and it’s one that Sam and I also hold dear. But I don’t want the focus on material wealth to overshadow the legacy I really want to leave behind for my children. After all, while material possessions provide us with a tangible connection to the person we’ve lost, it’s the essence of the person we speak about when they’re gone; not the ‘things’ they entrusted to us.
When this world has passed me by, I want my children to be left with life lessons and advice to draw upon. I want them to be left with memories of my character – not just my strengths, but my struggles too. I want them to have stories from me, from Sam and from the generations before us to pass down to their own children. I want them to have no doubt about the all-consuming love I felt for them. I want to be approachable and open with them throughout their lives so that their important questions don't go forever unanswered. I want them to know what social issues mattered to me, what social justice principles I lived by, what angered me, what motivated me and why.
A legacy is not something that’s created overnight. It’s a process. It’s an evolution. In order for a legacy to have integrity, it needs to be given time to establish itself if it’s going to have the strength to endure from generation to generation when the founder of it is long gone.
The key to building a legacy is not merely time, but how we spend our time. Some of us whine about becoming bored easily, while others whine about our lives being so busy that we don’t have time to stop and smell the roses.
Take a few minutes this week to think about the legacy you want to leave behind. Then make an honest assessment of whether you’re currently using your time to build that legacy effectively.
For some of us, a few simple tweaks might make the world of difference. We might tell our child a story from our own childhood at bedtime instead of reading them one. We might pick fewer battles with our kids…we might pick more. We might sacrifice some of our mindless Facebook checks for another two minutes of conversation with our children about their day. We might talk to our children differently, or to our partners differently in front of them. We might show our children more affection, or our partners more affection in front of them.
Your legacy is not created on the day you die. It's already begun taking shape, whether you like it or not. So take control of it, enjoy building it, and leave your children with a legacy you want to be remembered by.
I'm married to Sam and I'm a mother to Henry.