Relationships are the only thing that matters
My wife and I were househunting and had just toured two properties in a neighborhood we like. Neither house will work for us, but we saw an estate sale. Swooping in like vultures, we donned our masks and pretended to shop while we checked out the house.
The matched set of collectible Looney Tunes glasses brought everything into focus.
Estate sales are like garage sales, except with absolutely everything in the house laid out and tagged with garage sale prices. The garage was full of antiques and collectibles. The living room and the bedrooms were stuffed with knickknacks. In the kitchen, everything from the cabinets was arranged in neat rows on the counter, including a set of Looney Tunes glasses, one for each character. Bugs, Daffy, and the Tasmanian Devil stared up at me.
Did they spend months and dozens of trips to McDonald's to get these? Was it a family quest? Or were they bought in a set when the kids were small? Did the kids grow up with them and love them? It doesn’t matter now. These glasses and everything else in the house that was once important to the owners were now cut-rate junk that no one wanted. [A quick Google search shows a set of 1973 Looney Tunes glasses can be found for $18]
Sure, you may graduate from life with a few priceless artifacts that someone can resell. Maybe your great grandma’s china from the old country is worth a couple of grand. Or they may just be worthless plates.
We held an estate sale for my mother when she moved into a senior living center. Childhood memories that I cherished were sold for pennies. I couldn't take the entire house home. I rescued my dad’s large wooden console stereo, which gives me comfort when I listen. My mom’s silver is under the bed. Most of the rest…gone.
What about your house? I was emotional about giving up the family home. Even though I hadn’t lived there in decades, it was home. But once my mom moved out it became an empty shell. When I first heard Dave Ramsey say on the radio that houses are “just bricks and dirt,” I didn’t get it. Now I do; my mom’s old house is just an asset on the balance sheet that she rents out.
Your achievements are crap, too
My diplomas stare down at me from above my desk. I spent ten years getting one of them. It cost literally thousands of hours in classes, studying, researching, and writing. When I die, who’s going to care? Will my kids take my beautifully framed diploma home to and put it up in their office as some sort of ancestor worship?
At best, maybe someone can resell the expensive but catalog-bought picture frame with my university name on it for $20 bucks. My custom frame for my master’s degree won't even be worth that.
What about the business that you are building? No one will care. Your landscaping or plumbing business will dry up and blow away the week you are gone. Larger businesses are no better. Your mom-and-pop machine shop or injection molding operation will eventually fold or get sold. Maybe you sell it for retirement, or maybe your kids run it into the ground.
Even though the company may linger on for a while in name, it won’t be the thing you built. It might not even linger; the faceless corporation that bought it for the customer list and the market share can close the doors in a heartbeat and move production to Mexico or China.
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
— Percy Bysshe Shelley
If the King of Kings, Ozymandias, couldn’t make his accomplishments last, what chance do you have?
What really matters
The only thing that matters to the world after you are gone are your relationships. Were you a good parent? Your children will pay it forward. Your grandchildren will pay it forward. Your parenting, good or bad, can establish a family culture that will endure long after your descendants forget your name.
Maybe you don’t have kids. There are other relationships that matter just as much. I have teachers that I remember from junior high through my Ph.D. that taught me something special. Sometimes it was something about life, sometimes it was just a different way to look at the world.
My most rewarding teaching moments are when one of my students says that I showed them a new way to look at things. Some of them will teach graduate school someday and will show their students something different. It’s possible to establish a teaching legacy.
The possibilities to do good in the world are endless. For some people, the church is their thing. By being a leader and setting an example, one can help build a strong church culture that can even become self-sustaining. One could also volunteer in the community helping at-risk kids. Kids who need a Big Brother/Big Sister will grow up and extend a hand to those behind them.
Kindness and culture propagate in the world. The only thing that we can do that has any meaning is to make it a little better place.
Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.