I. Life is short-Pay Attention!
I am staring at a bar-chart of various colored bars that represent my financial outlook. As I follow the chart from left to right, I am jolted upright in my chair when I realize that the bar representing the amount I will need to live on is gone!
It’s like, one moment I am here, and the next – POOF! I am not.
Isn’t this what we experience when some stimulus rudely confronts us with our mortality? It may happen attending a funeral, visiting a nursing home, or while accompanying a friend through their last days.
It’s not that we believe we won’t die. We just choose to ignore the fact. Like Scarlett O’Hara, we choose to “think about it tomorrow”.
Modern society is culpable in this little ruse. They love to tell us ‘60 is the new 40’. I guess in that case, ‘110 is the new 90.’ In any event, we are headed to our end.
Medical science has played its part in the “Eternal Youth” movement. In just 50 years, life expectancy in developed countries jumped from 62 to over 80. Diseases that killed millions have been eradicated or are rare. We hope this trend will continue, and that we will benefit in our lifetime with even longer life.
In contrast, ancient life was short and hard. Jacob, the patriarch of the nation of Israel declared as much, leaning on his staff, as he told Pharaoh of Egypt “Short and unpleasant have been the days of my life”.
In the fourth century St. Benedict, wrote “Keep death always before your eyes.”
Similarly, the psalmist sang,
“LORD, make me to know my end And what is the extent of my days; Let me know how transient I am.” Psalm 49: 4
This is not meant to be an exercise in morbid reflection, but a way to approach life with attentiveness to how we are living today.
Recapture with me if you will this ancient wisdom and outlook, and let’s consider together what it is we wish to leave behind to others.
II. Wishing For A Better Past
Through the years, I have been privileged to accompany family members, close friends, and fellow parishioners in their last days.
I have noticed a very common emotion that arises; a profound wish that we could go back and get a “re-do” on something in our life.
It doesn’t seem to matter how good and loving the person was, they have something they wish they could change.
Few of us will get through life without regrets; regretting things we said and did, or things we didn’t say or do—the harms we inflict on those we love.
In the recovery literature of Alcoholics Anonymous there is a specific promise held out to those who do the hard work of recovery:
“You will not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it… No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” —A promise earnestly desired by many a recovering addict or alcoholic, yet is often the most difficult to realize.
How does one arrive at a place of non-regret, where one no longer pines for a life re-do?
By looking differently at our past.
“Cling to the thought that, in God’s hands, the dark past is the greatest possession you have—the key to life and happiness for others.” Bill Wilson
What tremendous hope this lesson gives us. No matter what, we can take our life, the good and not so good, and use it all for the benefit of others. Absolutely nothing we have gone through is wasted in the hands of God. No regrets–just faith, hope, and love.
III. Leave Your Best
There is in all of us an existential drive to leave behind evidence that we were here and that our time on earth made someone’s life better.
It is this very drive to leave a legacy that differentiates homo-sapiens from all other animal species.
This drive is also the source of all creative works of art, literature, architecture, and music composition.
But we are not all artists, so how do the rest of us fulfill this urge to leave something of ourselves behind?
By making an impact on the memory of others.
Memory is short. Few of us are remembered once we are gone, except by those closest to us—and even for those the memory will continue to fade. Do you remember all your co-workers, fellow students, neighbors who have moved? Do they occupy any part of your regular thoughts? Very few do for me. I am sure I am not in theirs either.
As for man, his days are like grass; As a flower of the field, so he flourishes. When the wind has passed over it, it is no more, and its place acknowledges it no longer. Ps:103:15-16
There are exceptions. A special friend, teacher, coach, pastor, boss, who took a special interest in me, and shared themselves more than once. I don’t remember exactly what words were said, or what they did.
But what I do remember was how they made me feel about myself. That is what lingers on years after they have left my life. That is their legacy to me.
Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States – A common dream for many a boy (and today, becoming a dream for girls!)
But, in the long view of history, his presidency will not go down as particularly memorable.
What will be remembered is the humanitarian work he did after his presidency; Habit for Humanity, working for world peace, and as a Sunday school teacher in his neighborhood Church.
President Carter saved his best work for last, and in my view, that is what his legacy will be.
I don’t want to come to the end of my life and find it reduced to bars on a chart that simply disappear.
What will you and I leave behind? Will it be what we have accumulated? Will it be what deeds we have done? Or, will it be how well we have loved—how we have made others feel about themselves?
The choice is ours. And we can begin this moment to build our legacy—through our impact upon the memories of others, one day at a time, one loving word at a time, and one loving act at a time.