Cultivating a Legacy
Was there ever a time when you were a kid that there was some toy advertised on TV that you wanted? Do you remember how brightly that that desire burned? I still vividly remember when I was about 7 years old, Texaco gas stations began selling a plastic fireman’s hat with a microphone that allowed you to amplify your voice through a speaker set in the shield on the front. The result was a buzzing garbled voice that sounded not so much like a firefighter dispatch radio as a McDonald’s drive-thru, but it was so cool and I wanted it like Ralphie wanted that Red Ryder BB gun. I pestered my poor parents relentlessly for it. Finally, one night after my month-long campaign, my folks agreed that I could have one. So, after dinner, my mom and I got in the car and headed for the Texaco station. But when we got there, they were out of them. The man there suggested another location and off we went. Same story.
We widened our search area and crisscrossed the county. Now the stations were closing down for the night but I insisted on pressing on. I ran my poor mom around until after midnight trying to find a Texaco that was open late and still had some hats in stock. We dragged home in defeat that night, but by 5:30 the next morning I was shaking my dad awake to start the next leg of the Great Fireman’s Hat Quest. Within the hour I came home exhausted but victorious and fell asleep with that red gleaming hat firmly strapped to my head.
We spend our lives wanting things. When we're kids, we're obsessed with the latest toys and when we're adults it becomes the desire for those things that represent who we hope we are and are tangible evidence of our success.
But as we move into later life, most of us begin to see the quest for what we want a little differently. Sure, I still want things but the burning desire has been tempered and cooled by the gratitude I feel for what I already have that really matters: the love of my family including two sisters with whom I share so many memories, my son who survived a life-threatening childhood illness 20 years ago and now is a healthy college graduate, a 30-year marriage to the love of my life who also happens to be my best friend, the memory of my parents who taught me so many good lessons but still patiently indulged my childhood dreams, lasting friendships, my own good health and the privilege of getting to work at something I love.
It's true that I used to think so much about all I hoped to have, but now that’s changed. Now I also think about what I hope to leave.
For good or ill, we all leave a legacy. Your legacy is simply your influence measured on a timeline that exceeds your own. And unless you are a wealthy philanthropist endowing charitable foundations and public buildings that will bear your name, you can’t be entirely sure what your legacy will be because when that is known you won’t be around to see it nor change it.
Forging a legacy is largely a matter of doing the right things and then trusting that something good will come to fruition. It’s like the Greek proverb about planting trees under whose shade you’ll never sit.
At this time of the year, it's fun to pack up the kids and visit one of those pick-your-own apple farms where you ride out into the fields on a flat bed trailer behind a tractor like a migrant worker and then hop off and rush around picking and eating sweet Fujis and Galas and Honeycrisps. And all the time you're picking and munching, you've probably never spared a thought for the hands that planted the trees and did the hard work that made all that sweetness possible. Yet it's a good bet that some of those who planted the trees in that orchard never sat in its shade nor ate the apples that you now so lightheartedly harvest.
The best we can do as individuals or as organizations to ensure a positive and lasting legacy is to resolve to plant and cultivate little seeds every day we’re still able to do it. If you consistently speak positive words and encourage others, you’re planting seeds that will grow inspiration from you long after your own voice has fallen silent. If you plant seeds of compassion in random acts of kindness, others may harvest your goodwill in ways you've never dreamed. And if you plant healing laughter, others might gather joy and comfort in your memory and be instructed by your example.
Whatever legacy you hope to leave behind, it’s never too late or too early to start. But if you want your life to matter in the future, it has to matter enough to plant the right seeds now.