Legacy - What Are You Leaving Behind?

“The mass of men worry themselves into nameless graves while here and there a great unselfish soul forgets himself into immortality.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Your actions today will have far-reaching effects on those who outlive you and those you will never meet. Your kids, your grandkids, their grandkids.

What you do today, in this moment, matters.

A Broken World

In so many ways we’ve been left a broken world by those before us:

  • insurmountable national debt
  • choking pollution
  • gross inequalities
  • blatant injustice

Do you think this has been on purpose? That our forefathers sat around a dimly-lit room suggesting they make life difficult for their great-great-grandchildren?

Probably not.

But what they failed to see or failed to care about was that their actions had far-reaching impact.

Let’s not repeat this.

My Mother’s Legacy.

Recently I received an email from a reader, Jane*.

Her mother recently passed away and Jane, an only child, had the task of clearing out the family home before it was sold.

She wrote to me so completely overwhelmed with the job, unable to start. Unable to make a single decision about this house full of stuff. Unable to remove her mother’s memory from the decisions she needed to make.

“How do I even begin? None of the stuff here means anything to me, but it obviously did to my mum. How can I tell what needs keeping and what can be thrown away?”

Unfortunately for Jane, her legacy had already being passed on. Her mother’s death had sealed it. She had no say in it. She simply had to spend weeks of her life – weeks away from her husband and kids, from her friends and her work – dealing with the legacy.

Do you think her mother would have wanted that?

No. By all accounts, her mother was a wonderful woman. A great provider, a gentle spirit with a streak of wicked humour.

But Jane’s mum simply didn’t consider that her actions – keeping a house full of old stuff – would one day hold consequences for her much-loved daughter.

She just didn’t consider it.

*Jane is not her real name. 

What Legacy Will You Leave Behind?

No-one enjoys considering their own death. But just for a moment, just one uncomfortable moment, ask yourself:

If you died tomorrow, what legacy would your loved ones have in your place?

  • Cupboards and boxes and sheds full of useless stuff for them to sort through?
  • Debt for them to repay?
  • Years of paperwork for them to make sense of?
  • Decades of keepsakes and knick-knacks that lost their significance under a thick layer of dust?
  • Memories of hectic weekends, multiple social engagements and television dinners?

I know my family would receive a legacy of disorganised papers, memories of me being “too busy” to push them on the swing and a fondness for staying home – even when the weather is beautiful outside.

Do you know what we can leave behind instead?

  • Years of fond memories – playing with your kids, snuggling with your partner, laughing with your friends.
  • The gift of self-assurance and inner-strength that comes from knowing they were loved.
  • Hearts full of experiences – from travel, to people, places and culture.
  • Savings to help them establish a secure home as adults.
  • A compassionate heart.
  • Depth of character.

And if you let your mind expand beyond your loved ones, you could leave behind:

A world that values experiences over stuff.

A world that values justice over injustice.

A world that values love over hate.

A world that values compassion over greed.

Can you imagine the world our great-great-great grandkids might live in if we left that legacy?

I know it sounds fanciful. Naive even. But it begins somewhere. Why not with me?

Why not with you?

15 Responses to Legacy

  1. Nice article Brooke.

    You know some of the decisions by our current politicians and business leaders really make you wonder – are they that short sighted? Do they know what this is doing to the world of tomorrow? Do they care about their grandchildren? I hope it is just a matter of not understanding, but in the long run it doesn’t even matter that much. Our choices do matter, the future depends on them.

    Dan @ ZenPresence.com

      • I couldn’t agree more, Dan. Often I wonder about the decisions being made at higher levels too – are these not human beings with families and passions and loves? Of course they are, but their decisions leave so much to be desired, don’t they? So much compromise, so little foresight.

        Honestly, that’s why I think our energies are far better spent creating change on a day-to-day, personal level. Create a movement that carries up, not a policy that filters down.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this very issue a lot over the past few weeks as we culled our belongings. It’s a horrible frustrating and depressing task – and it was my belongings I was culling!? Imagine if it was your parents.

    Beautiful inspiring article Brooke.

  3. My father is going through this very same thing – his mother, my grandmother, has recently died and he is now in the midst of going through her home and belongings. She was very talented and made so many handcrafts but these have all just sat in her home for years and years. Her closets were packed with clothing. He’s having a hard time going through it all and trying to handle all of the “stuff”. I left there this evening and came home to my husband to say that we should make an effort to not leave our children with a home so full of “things”.

  4. I dread losing my mother, because losing her will leave a gaping hole in my life. But I’ll have to put off mourning her as I’ll be stuck sorting through all the STUFF she refuses to sort now. I’ve managed to get her to throw away some of the items she’s held on to over the past 70 years, but she has 3 closets of clothes, 3 desks of papers and a basement of storage. As the only daughter, I know my brothers will leave it to me. They’ll be able to mourn, yet I’ll be left with the sorting. She keeps things like an exercise VHS tape because a former step-daughter-in-law gave it to her. I won’t be able to toss it all without sorting it though, because sometimes when I help her sort I find something important, like the only picture of her mother’s parents, or a stock certificate or money that she put in a “safe” place.

    Then I come home from a visit and feel inspired to keep my papers down to a box or 3 so my children won’t feel the same frustration!

    • You’ve just hit the nail on the head there, Chele. It’s a fear so many of us hold, and yet it often takes a huge reality check like you’ve described for us to shift perspective.

  5. It may be ‘a house full of old stuff’ but it is also a house filled with memories. I am 60 and am in my 2nd marriage. My tangible memories consist of a few precious photos and personal items I was able to rescue while my 1st husband was at work during our divorce proceedings. When he found out I had taken some of my own things he changed the locks on our marital home preventing my return. So don’t talk about ‘a house full of old stuff’ as though it’s something abhorrent. Sometimes I long for MY house full of MY old stuff.

    • “Stuff” isn’t really the problem. It’s junk-clutter that is.

      Having dealt with loss from organized vs disorganized relatives, the organized experience is much nicer with more space to grieve the lost loved one without the burdens of having to tie up the loose ends.

      While I know that few mothers my age deal with this, as soon as I became pregnant I began to plan for my son’s on-going security should I pass. I feel that it is vital to ease my son’s grief and journey in whatever way that I can when I pass.

      Not only did I go through a major purge of my possessions, but my husband and I went through and organized all of our affairs. We made sure that the proper beneficiaries were named on all paperwork, that insurance was sorted, and that we had living wills as well as regular wills. We stipulate guardianship of our son, as well as the trust for him.

      Everyone has been informed of the contents of the will, and the name of our lawyer. Should anything happen to us, our lawyer will contact them, and then decisions will follow the will (our lawyer is executor).

      All of this is designed to allow the family to deal with their *grief* and tend specifically to DS’s needs (as he is only 4 now). I would much rather their energy be spent focusing on that need as opposed to clutter that needs to be disposed of before the items that I own can go to auction.

      Yes, I have stuff — even sentimental stuff — but having a will, and keeping my stuff clearly accessible (and also obvious — this is sentimental and important, that is my juicer which is essentially an appliance and utterly unimportant to me emotionally) and to a comfortable yet also simple/minimal amount, family can focus on what is important — their emotions and DS’s needs — not getting rid of my juicer.

  6. Your article is so poignant to my profession as I see that so many people feel the need to save everything from childhood school papers, to sports and dance trophy’s and “at a boy” letters. I’ve even had a jar of teeth someone saved as the tooth fairy left her treasures. I have sold many estate homes over the years in which someone had to take charge and clear the clutter. I think parents have a need to save things for their kids, and the kids have the need to make mom or dad happy in preserving their memories, even if they have no desire to keep any of it. I try to encourage sellers to go through these boxes together with their families while they are still young enough to take it on. Often it’s when they downsize from a larger 2 story home to a ranch or condo. Have a fun day of memories, sharing stories, laughing and crying together and then pass it on or let it go. As things pile up and they become older, possibly in poor health, it becomes a task that is insurmountable for many, and could be a burden of guilt for the children.

  7. I’m re-reading this post today and remembering that it was exactly this issue that led me to start simplifying and de-cluttering the lives of myself and my family. When my mother died, I inherited not only her own household, but that of my grandmother and great-grandmother because each time someone died, her daughter was too emotionally caught up to get rid of the stuff. My mother and I used to talk about what to do with all the stuff and planned to someday open an antiques booth at an antiques mall.

    So now I have opened the booth, finally, by myself. I know she would have approved. I like to think that had she lived, she would have eventually embraced my new philosophy of minimalism. I have donated about a dozen truckloads (I’ve lost count exactly) and sold hundreds of items on Craiglist, eBay, and Amazon. I thrown away moreitems than I’ve donated or sold put together.

    Bottom line: I don’t want to put my boys through what my sister and I went through. It gets easier to purge after time, but after five years, there is still so much more that needs to go. I am glad, however, that the legacy I’m leaving to my own children is that it’s just stuff. They rarely hold on to items for sentimental value and encourage me to keep getting rid of it and don’t bring it home in the first place.

    I envy those minimalism/simplicity bloggers who purged their entire households within weeks so they could sail around the world/travel the country in an RV with their kids/move into a 100-square foot house. How did they do it so quickly, short of pulling a dumpster up to their house and start tossing everything in sight? For us, it’s been a years-long process and a continual journey, as well as a complete change in our worldview and thinking process. We’ve also completely overhauled our values.

    Perhaps I am complicating the process of simplifying.

  8. […] the checklist for September, I was reminded of a post I wrote at the beginning of the year. In it I ask, “What legacy will you leave behind?” And I think it, and the accompanying story about Jane’s mum, should be required reading […]

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