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This may be the best way to leave a lasting legacy


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Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 01/30/22

What we do now leaves a lasting legacy and teaches our children habits they pass on to future generations.

If you had to, which would you choose: To die young but be remembered forever, or to live a long and peaceful life but be forgotten soon after you die?

The warrior Achilles made this choice in the ancient epic The Iliad. His mother, Thetis, foretold that her son was fated either to gain immortal glory but die young, or to live a long and quiet life but fade into obscurity. 

He chose a short life that would endure in history, living in a brief blaze of glory. I, for one, would have chosen the exact opposite. But he made his choice, and he got what he wanted. Sure enough, thousands of years after he died, we’re still talking about him in high school and college literature classes.

His choice was unusually extreme. But all of us want to be remembered to some extent. This is largely why human beings make art, write, record photos and videos, and leave behind our creative work. 

I read the story of Achilles with my children recently, and it sparked a conversation about how we’d want to be remembered. What kinds of things are we doing now that will leave a lasting legacy?

On the face of things, it seems easy to be remembered in today’s record-obsessed age. Most of us are leaving behind a huge digital footprint. But is this really the legacy we want to leave? Many of the records we leave online are fluffy and fun to watch, but ultimately insubstantial.

Recently I saw a “reel” in which an Instagram personality exhorted followers to “live a life that will be remembered.” I wondered what on earth she could mean by that. She seemed to think it involved running down hills at sunset in trendy clothing, which strikes me as totally beside the point. 

What actually will be remembered? British author Lewis Carroll said it so well when he wrote, “One of the secrets of life is that all that is really worth the doing is what we do for others.”

We can count on this: It’s our acts of loving service to our neighbors that will be remembered. The paramount example of this, of course, is the witness of the saints. They lived with such rare self-sacrifice and heroic virtue that their names are immortalized in Church canon and they will be remembered as long as there are human beings on this earth.

In this truth lies a paradox. People who live only for themselves and their own desires will be forgotten, while people who live thinking of others are remembered. 

Our names may or may not appear on the annals of the canonized, but the work we are doing now is leaving a lasting legacy. It’s affecting not only our children (and our children’s children, as we set in place behavioral patterns that our kids will repeat) but also our friends, families, co-workers, acquaintances, and even people we don’t know by name but who see us go about our daily business. 

It’s the little everyday acts of service that, for most of us, will become our legacy. It’s what we do for others that will make our memories a blessing.

“She drove me to my doctor when I had severe depression and couldn’t get there on my own.”

“He brought over dinner for the whole family after I had the baby.”

“She sent me a card on my birthday every year.”

“He helped me out when no one else would.”

I suspect it’s these simple acts of loving kindness make up a life worth living and worth remembering.

A dear friend once described to me how, at her father’s funeral, many people came up to her sharing stories of kind acts he’d done for them. They were people she had never seen before, but they related all kinds of private acts of helpfulness and generosity her father had done. 

Those are the memories that stay with the people in our lives. That’s “a life that will be remembered.” It makes me wonder, what am I doing today to leave this kind of legacy?

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