Have you ever thought that giving your life to what you do best might help you feel the weight of the years much less? It sounds implausible, but if you think about it, we are all special. All of us have something to pass on to others, so that the best of us lives on. Even if we don’t think we have them, all of us can discover and utilize our unique talents, skills, aptitudes, and character-whether we are 35 or 65– to make a life-enriching difference.
Even if we are not Mother Teresa or Albert Einstein, we may well be an extraordinary partner, parent, grandparent, or friend, without really knowing it. Or we may be that artist or teacher who can ignite the spark of enthusiasm and adventure in those who will be here after we are gone. Shakespeare lays down the challenge as he says,
There is a Japanese saying that whatever we do, we should think how it will affect people ten generations later. When Bill and Melinda Gates made the change from profit to charitable giving, they found the world needed not just their wealth; it needed their own time and care, to place the resources exactly where they would make a long term difference. Most of us aren’t blessed with such wealth, but the process is the same. Think about it: whether it is qualities we possess or work we perform, how can we devote more time and attention to furthering the best in us, rather than frittering our precious energy on what will not matter, when we are no more? My grandpa went through this reflection process when he retired and realized his real gift was his carpentry skills. He set about spending every spare minute giving freely to his community, where the door he crafted or window he replaced brings him lovingly to mind even today. Whether you write, act, paint, garden, do childcare work or political organizing, think as you create just how what you do may reach out into the future.
Society today gives us the message that material success trumps family bonds. But in leaving a legacy, it’s the people closest who are most likely to remember us. I am not just talking about saving for your kids’ college fund or providing amply for grandkids in your will, important as these are. We are remembered with much more fondness if we show the young our deepest love and closest attention. This usually entails hard choices, because all of us feel strapped for time. You may have to make hard choices like refusing to serve on a key committee, and instead be there for your granddaughter’s soccer season, or to help your son rehearse lines for his play. Our kids need us, more even than their peers, and more than they need great achievements in school or sports. This means being there for them from the very beginning. The love you give so freely will not just bring you continually to mind; the best part of you will live on in them.
When you ponder where best to put your time and attention, give greatest value to what fits into a greater scheme, bigger than all of us. To do this, I find a spiritual practice helpful. Meditation, for instance, slows down the feverish pace of thought and allows an arrow’s entryway into a consciousness that is not just us, but everyone. If we attempt every day to bathe in that greater source of life and support, we will understand better just where to route all possible action into what will build our legacy. It may be the trees you plant; the art you paint, sculpt, write, or build; or the minds you enrich. And paradoxically, our own aging matters less when we pour ourselves into people and things that will in their own way continue us. If we search out just what will and put our efforts there, we will not only see how our face can leave an everlasting imprint– we may also not even realize we are growing old.