Have you ever tried to imagine your own memorial service, or the obituary that announces it? What will people say about you, and how will they feel about the person you have been. We have all seen movies and read books in which the chief conceit is that the main character gets to visit the world after his death and see the feelings and memories left behind. Of course, in fiction, there is always another chance – an opportunity to right wrongs and change course so as to change that fateful outcome. And most fictional protagonists choose to undertake a moral pivot in order to redeem themselves and their legacies.
In reality, most of us have little idea how we will be remembered or what mark we will leave on the world. The closest approximation is probably available in those treasured moments of intimacy with loved ones, especially family. But as to else might be in attendance at the memorial or what they might say over the water cooler once our bodies have chilled …well, it’s sort of up for grabs. But the exercise of asking yourself what will be left behind you when you’re gon
e needn’t be morbid and in fact, can be extremely powerful. That question can prompt an inquiry that we can use to guide us in being the kind of person we want to be and in choosing how to spend our time, resources and energy while still very much alive.
I was thinking of my best friend, Gloria, who died unexpectedly a couple of years ago. Whenever I think of her I remember all of the moments in which she said something so insightful, and so novel, that it changed me and transformed
my thinking. I recall conversations we had in which I started out feeling hopeless or frustrated, and she was able to conjure a way to re-contextualize whatever circumstances I had so as to give me an avenue to generate joy, aliveness and hope. I remember how known I felt around her. That legacy outlives her body and transcends the limitations of a single human life. Of course, for me, she has left a great vacuum, and her life resonates more powerfully than she could have imagined. But even with that profound a legacy, I suspect that if she were able to read this now from “beyond” she would regret not having left more – more of herself, her brilliance, her insight and her empathy in some more lasting form.
When we really confront how finite our lives are and how much more of eternity will be spent with us dead than alive, the question of one’s legacy takes on significance. That significance suggests that we should make real and conscious choices about what we want to leave behind. Will your legacy be in the form of ideas, or good works? Will it include works of art, music, writing, buildings or business ventures? Will people remember you with gratitude, warmth or with the memory of insights, growth and inspiration they gained through knowing you? There is only one way to alter how that turns out, and it is to steer the course of life in such a way that we craft an outcome we believe would most merit our having spent our life working on it. Viewed like that, you could say that the question is not so much about death as it is about life. What is your life’s work? Because once you consider what you want to leave behind, all there is to do is to spend your life at work on that.
As I entertain the question myself I find it’s helpful to parse it into different domains and address it through the prism of the many roles I play in my own life, community, family and the world. You may find it helpful to do that too. So, here are some questions and exercises to guide you in the inquiry of what you want to leave behind when you are gone – or what to spend your life working on. This process is great to undertake alone with a notepad, or with someone else you trust.
- Try writing your obituary. Once you complete the biographical facts, write the qualitative part. What else should be there? List those items.
- If you could leave behind the memory of a single attribute/feeling/characteristic what would it be? You may have different answers for different parts of your life, so ask the question for each of these (and any others)
- For your colleagues?
- For your children (If you have any)?
- For your partner (if you have one)?
- For your best friend(s)?
- For those who have never met you but know who you are.
- Do you dream of completing some kind of concrete work that will outlive you? A book? Art works? Music? Designs? A record in sports or something else? If so, have you begun or completed it/them?
- What loose end would there be in your relationships if you died tomorrow? What apologies haven’t been made, or love expressed, or distance reconciled?
- What gives you the greatest joy and who will remember having shared that with you when you are gone? If you can’t think of anything or anyone that you share it with, consider beginning to find joy — and to share your sources of joy with others.
- What aspect of today’s world do you find intolerable and want more than anything to change – if even just a little? This can alert you to the places you may want to give your time, energy or money – so as to make a difference in the world.
- Who misunderstands you? There is time now to share the real you, and correct that.
I’d love to hear anything you notice as you undertake this inquiry, and hear whatever feedback you have about it.
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