We need to face facts: we’re all going to die and many of us won’t be remembered past our grandchildren. So, how should we consider our legacies while we’re still alive?
I recently found myself buried in family photos in a storage unit in Charlotte, North Carolina. Sorting through thousands of images of my ancestors, I realized that my generation would be the last to remember my grandparents. My children never witnessed the decades of service my mother’s parents devoted to their community in eastern Kentucky, or how the horrors of World War II fractured my father’s family. Their memories will be reduced to names on a family tree.
All of us, eventually, will be forgotten by the living; even the most famous and infamous among us. Yet we’d like to think our existence on this planet matters beyond the few decades of our lifetime. This drive to be remembered leads us to seek a legacy that ties us to future generations long after we’re gone.
Many of us imagine leaving behind something tangible—a trust fund, a professional contribution, our name on a building. This hope might drive us to work more, earn more, do more. Yet, ironically, a preoccupation with being considered after death often damages our relationships with those most likely to remember us.
Palliative care physician Ira Byock, MD, has seen this sad irony in his decades of work with people facing the end of their time on Earth. He described individuals who “realize they’ve acted selfishly, that they’ve hurt people they had no intention of hurting, that they spent all of their emotional energy in work or making money.” They discover they’ve missed the mark, like the father who worked non-stop for decades to amass a fortune at the expense of really getting to know his children (Nike co-founder Phil Knight tells in his biography, Shoe Dog, of his failure to nurture a relationship with his son while building the world’s biggest and most successful sportswear company).
When it comes to leaving a legacy, “it’s not stuff that matters—it’s our relationships,” says Dr Byock. “We are hardwired to matter to one another.” A meaningful legacy thus comes from the quality of our connections with those we care about. It also includes the “special knowledge you want to pass on to your children and grandchildren and their children, the legacy of wisdom that you want them to remember from you,” adds Byock.
Just as trauma can be transmitted from ancestors to descendants, the good we do can ripple through countless generations in ways we’ll never know. A chain of virtue and values can continue unbroken, long after our names are forgotten. And so, perhaps, my children will carry their greatgrandparents’ legacy with them, not in material possessions or direct knowledge of their actions, but in the spirit of service that animated their lives.
But what about those who realize to their great dismay that they’ve focused on a material legacy while neglecting their closest relationships, as they edge closer to death? Thankfully, it’s never too late to change the legacy of one’s relationships even when death is near. “There’s something about knowing that time is short that opens up new opportunities,” says Dr. Byock. “The anger and transgressions that have divided us begin to look small compared to the monolith of eternity that confronts us. And we start to say, ‘What really matters most is to heal this relationship’.”
This kind of healing can come through the expression of four simple messages, as Dr Byock describes in his book The Four Things That Matter Most. These messages are: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.” “You can change the story of a relationship, which changes the story of a family, and the history of a family.” In the end, the message is clear: “We’re all evanescent, but love is forever.” If you really want to be remembered, build something that matters: leave a legacy of love.
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