I woke up before 5 am with a question burning in my mind. I’d like to think what caused me to wake up out of a sound sleep was a benevolent whisper from an ancestor’s grave but it was more likely Zena the terrier standing up, circling twice, and plopping down against my side. Regardless, behind my open eyes, trains were roaring down tracks in all directions, and they weren’t going to stop and let me sleep again until I figured out both the question and the answer.
The question was a little one about why I’m here, and what I’m going to leave behind for the people who outlive me and the people who come after me. Or, in other words, what is immortality?
A person is as immortal as his or her loyalty to a code that fosters human dignity and value. There is no immortality associated with possessions. Your home, no matter how handsome or safe it is now, no matter how much you love going back to it at the end of the day, and no matter who lives there with you, is meaningless after you’re gone.
The legacy you leave behind won’t be an inheritance. It’ll be the eternal memory of what you did for others, especially the things you didn’t need to do: kindnesses of all sizes.
Our friend Lionel lived a long and productive life. He had a beautiful home, a beautiful family, and beautiful buildings he created over decades as a contractor and property owner in a coastal California City. When he passed on, hundreds came to pay their respects. Everyone had a story to tell. None of the stories were about anything he owned or made but instead, they were about his kindness, his charity, and his generous acknowledgement of others’ contributions. He will be remembered fondly by many for a very long time.
This time of year I find myself thinking about family members who aren’t here anymore. My father was complicated and our relationship was uneven. Still, as I get older and gain more perspective, I realize that the legacy he left was positive: a strong work ethic, an appreciation of learning, a curiosity about how things work, a quirky sense of humor, and a willingness to talk to anyone about anything without — looking back at it — much judgment about their choices. He was far from perfect but his mark on this earth’s balance sheet was in the asset column. When he passed away, I was surprised at how many people came to pay their respects and how many of those people had stories to tell about unexpected ways in which he touched their lives.
About a decade after Dad died, my mother’s second husband John passed away. John was also flawed but John was a mean person, a man who had little use for others, and little patience for their value. He was explosive. He was rude. Very few people came to John’s funeral. I don’t recall hearing much said about John; the most positive comments I heard thanked him for his service in World War II. It seemed that his military service was his biggest value — even though it had happened more than half a century before. His funeral was sadder than my father ‘s not because we’d lost him, but because he’d lost so many years of opportunity for greatness.
These early morning reflections lead me to conclude that what is important in life is living with purpose and integrity. It’s treating others with kindness, and making the acts of beauty and love, not the material accomplishments, your legacy.
If all we did even once a day, even when it was the harder path, was one kind thing for another or one act of pure love for another, our lives would have enough meaning to make us immortal.
Then we could all sleep through the night, every night, lulled to tranquility by the knowledge that we were on the right path — at least until the next unintentional kick in the ribs from a sleeping dog.