Look to the End
Everyone knows that their life will end someday, but no one likes to think about it. Which is unfortunate, because as soon as you start thinking about the end of your life, you start to live differently.
I believed I was thinking about the end of my life when I considered retirement. I planned how to save in order to make my final years as comfortable and worry-free as possible. I made a plan for how to distribute my possessions once I'm gone. But all of it was still theoretical. I figured my final days were far in the future, and even as I planned for them I didn't take them seriously.
Of course it's normal to put a lot of energy and focus on a career. No one wants to be stuck in a dead-end job with no challenge and no future – we want to climb a corporate ladder, or become a success in our own business. We want tenure, and publication in peer-reviewed journals. We want starring roles, medals, and awards. Or we want to be social media influencers and the subject of viral videos.
(And whether or not we accomplish any of these things, we want our children to do us proud by attaining them.)
But it's possible to achieve every goal you ever had and still feel empty and unfulfilled. "Is this all there is?" is not an uncommon response among people who look like they're at the top of their game.
How awful it would be to get to the end and figure out that all of the deals and meetings, all of the networking, all of the late nights and early mornings, all of the shopping, all of the planning and saving, and even all of the fun experiences didn't matter all that much.
It's easy for any of us to get caught up in what we need to accomplish today, or in the opinions and expectations of our culture, and to lose sight of what really matters. But a motto such as "Look to the end" could help us stay focused on how we really want to live.
Many people choose a motto to express their guiding beliefs and life goals. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the Latin phrase "Soli Deo Gloria" ("To God alone be the glory") on most of the music he composed. The decorator and inspirational speaker Alexandra Stoddard wrote a book based on her motto, "Love and live happy." Henry David Thoreau is famous for writing, "Our life is frittered away by detail.... Simplify, simplify." When my children were younger, the motto for our home school came from educator John Holt's philosophy: "Learning all the time."
These are good mottos for a life well-lived. But "Look to the end" reminds me to focus on something more than accomplishments or my estate.
I don't remember where I saw this definition of legacy, but it really inspires me:
A legacy is not about leaving something for others. It's about leaving something within others.
Your legacy is how people will remember you. What stories will they tell about you? How will those stories make them feel? How will you change the life of another person, who will impact another, who will influence someone else, and so on? Your legacy will outlast you, and you can either make it valuable and soul-satisfying or hurtful and destructive.
When my husband is suddenly greeted by a student from 5, 10, or even 20 or more years ago (it happens all the time), I get a chance to see his legacy. He almost always remembers the student, who goes on to tell him how they got interested in science, or writing, or chess, or basketball, or teaching because of him. "You were my favorite teacher!" Don't we all have teachers, coaches, pastors, or other mentors who made a positive, lasting impact on our lives? That is their legacy.
When I see the time, energy, patience, and attention my daughter gives to listening, teaching, and responding to her sons, I know that she is building her legacy. When I hear my son mention a massage client whose pain he was able to alleviate, or whose mobility he was able to improve, I know he is building his legacy.
Will my life matter once it is over? Only if I look to the end.
7 Practical Steps to a Great Legacy
1. Focus on people.
Rather than worrying about money, career moves, or your bucket list, spend that energy on your life partner, your child, your sibling, your friend, co-worker, neighbor, or the disadvantaged in your community. Start with one person who needs you today. How? Why not try a little kindness?
2. Realize that your legacy does not depend on "success."
So often we think, "Once I'm rich/successful/visible, my life will matter." But you don't need any of those things for your life to be significant, and some people who achieve those things are a total mess! So concentrate on your legacy. If other types of success come your way in the future, you'll be better equipped to use them in truly beneficial ways.
3. Live a life worth emulating.
No one is perfect. But when you strive to be honest, trustworthy, kind, generous, and gracious, people notice.
4. Find your calling.
A calling is a strong impulse or inclination. It's a vocation that uses and stretches your unique personality, passions, and skills.
Sometimes your calling is your career, and sometimes it isn't. So if your day job simply pays the bills, find another way to follow your calling. It might start as a hobby, or a volunteer position, but you can make a positive contribution wherever you are.
5. Reduce your expenses.
Amy Dacyczyn wrote something at some point that made me realize that reducing expenses adds more to my life than chasing more money. Reducing expenses lets me work less and have more time, energy, and money to give to other pursuits.
And when it comes to leaving a physical legacy to your heirs, do your best to make sure you're not leaving them with debt.
6. Cultivate gratitude.
Gratitude is a mindset of abundance. When you start a gratitude practice, you become aware that you have enough, and more than enough, for your happiness and well-being. You gain contentment and a positive outlook. You realize that you have a lot to give.
7. Don't retire.
I don't mean that you should never retire from working for a living. But sometimes we get lazy as we age, and start thinking, "I've done my share. Now I'm going to relax and let the younger people do their part." But many people accomplish tremendous things later in life. It's never too late for achievement. It's never too late to build a relationship. It's never too late to help, serve, teach, or learn more. Don't stop now.
Look to the end, and think about what would give your life meaning and value beyond your physical estate. Then you can appreciate and act on what is truly important while you have the chance.
Photo by Paolo Bendandi on Unsplash