by Meg Newhouse
“At least two implications flow from our inevitable mortality.
First, because we will die, we need to pay attention to how we live.
Second, if we care about anyone, we need to think about
leaving something of ourselves behind.”
Susan Bosek, The Legacy Project
In January 2010 I visited the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, part of the Great Rift Valley, where the first humanoids emerged almost two million years ago. In the museum there I marveled at footprints of our earliest known homo erectus ancestors, preserved in lava and framed by an artist’s rendition of their little band running to escape the volcano that threatened their lives around 1.2 million years ago.
Most of us live relatively anonymous lives, leaving behind “footprints” that vanish within a few generations at best. I believe that we humans are hard-wired to find and make meaning of our lives, to make a positive difference, and to hope that some evidence that we existed and mattered lives on.
For many of us, bringing children into the world sharpens our awareness of legacy. Awareness can turn to an urge, often strong, as we progress beyond midlife, face a terminal disease, or witness a close friend’s impending death. As we age our personal horizons often expand as we see our place in a larger continuum of people, places, and time. And we understand that we acquire a certain kind of immortality through what we leave behind––memories, stories, artifacts, and influences preserving, for at least a few generations, something of who we were and what we stood for.
The questions that greet us at the threshold of our entry into elderhood remain the sameas for all those who’ve lived before us: How do we live so that we shape our legacies consciously, so that the best of who we are and what we value lives on in some way, at least within our circle of family and friends? And as the planet teeters on the brink of catastrophic climate change and species extinction, can we broaden our perspective and legacy work to include all life for many generations to come?
What is Legacy?
So, what shapes might a legacy take?
Legacy is often narrowly construed as the contents of a will, a gift or bequest of property, or the simple receipt of an inheritance. In truth, legacy encompasses so much more of a human life.
- as broad as the essential imprint of your life that lasts into the next generation and as specific as a single possession (for example, a family heirloom) willed to a survivor;
- as mighty as a religious or scientific paradigm shift or great artistic output and as mundane as a single family recipe passed down the generations;
- as public as an architectural monument and as private as a letter written to children or grandchildren;
- as tangible as a bank check and as intangible as a seemingly casual gesture of love or word of advice;
- as life-denying as the terrorists’ bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon and as life sustaining as the many acts of heroism in response.
Thus, legacy is enormously rich, multi-faceted, and complex. Its meaning can be boiled down to the imprint of our lives that lives on in some form. It is the imprint of our essence and our actions, our being and doing. It lives on in the memories of those we have touched, in their own essences and actions, and in tangible records that embody intangible qualities.
Legacies of the Heart
Many people find it easier to recall and ponder the legacies others have left or that they have received than to contemplate the legacies they are leaving. Our hyper-busy lives discourage being conscious about our legacies; simply dealing with daily demands consumes our energy. We can also be disheartened by feelings of inadequacy (I’m not leaving anything worthwhile behind) or exaggerated humility (I shouldn’t feel proud of this thing I did). Or we can feel overwhelmed by the perceived gap between what theologian Frederick Buechner called “the world’s deep hunger” and our own limited capacities to respond. Finally, let’s face it: the idea of legacy has been associated with dying, and we don’t want to think about our own deaths. And our understandable avoidance is supported by our death-denying, youth-exalting, culture.
Being intentional about our legacies is a compelling idea, but closer inspection uncovers practical difficulties. For one thing, we can’t live constantly concerned about what our legacies are and how they’re being received. More important, we have to ask which part of us is doing the intending—the fear-based part of our ego or our most loving, generous self. The gap can be discouragingly large between what our hearts aspire to and how we actually live.
But despite that gap, we can keep intending to live and choose from the heart. The heart understands that the gift of oneself, in whatever form, is its own reward. It understands that we can’t know what the best outcome is for its recipients, nor can we control how our gifts are received. In the end, living and giving from the heart is an act of faith. And such faith is the foundation of all life-affirming legacies.
Conscious Elders and Legacy
In contrast to the popular stereotype of aging bringing stagnation and rigidity, psychologists and cultural anthropologists specializing in adult development have found that, if we choose to embrace our journey into elderhood, the aging process brings many psychological, attitudinal, and neurological changes that can enhance our lives.
For example, as conscious elders we tend to loosen our attachment to ego and material desires in favor of deeper meaning, tolerance, and compassion. In other words we live more from the heart. Elders tend to see a larger picture — we have the capacity to see ourselves as one link in a long chain of ancestors and future generations, as a node in a web of interconnected people around the globe. We are more likely to focus on the similarities among people rather than on their ethnic, class, cultural, and national differences, as well as more likely to act for future generations as stewards of prized cultural traditions and of our Earth home.
In a kind of positive-feedback loop, a concern with legacy extends our sense of time and space. In pondering our legacies, we naturally think back to our roots and forward to the kind of society and planet we want to bequeath to children in the future. That in turn tends to reinforce our concern for legacy. And if we feel strongly enough, we are compelled to take action––whether within our families, friendship circles, local communities, or perhaps on a national or global stage The larger picture thus provides a context, compass, and catalyst for our increased desire to give back and leave a positive imprint.
Of course, not all older people fit this description and some, perhaps many, younger people do. More than age, the key characteristic is consciousness—an expanded awareness, wholeness perspective, and wisdom that comes from life experience that is reflected and built upon. Sage-ing pioneer Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Sholomi called this necessary inner work both “spiritual eldering” and “sage-ing,” and defined it as an ongoing “process that enables older people to become spiritually radiant, physically vital, and socially responsible ‘elders of the tribe.’”
The task is to raise consciousness in, and collaborate with, all generations. As some cultures have known for millennia and contemporary thought leaders are rediscovering, wise elders have a special role in mentoring the young, both to transmit the best in the culture and to hold a vision of what is possible. Indeed, Reb Zalman insists on the importance of transmitting our wisdom when he playfully asks elders: “Are you saved? I don’t mean in a theological sense but in a computer sense…. Have you downloaded your life experience for coming generations? Have you started doing your legacy work?”
Let’s dream a little. What if embracing conscious elderhood became the sexy new mission of aging Americans? What if those conscious elders decide to embrace a radical values shift that includes a seven-generation interdependence perspective? What if this leads to envisioning and working together with like-minded younger generations toward a more equitable, just, and tolerant global society— one in which humans peacefully coexist on our once again self-sustaining Earth, with all its diversity of life?
What if––far from being put out to pasture or consigned to the dust heap––conscious elders are called to use their energies, talents, and unique wisdom to plant the seeds of a new paradigm for the sake of the world’s great-great-great-great-grandchildren? What life-enhancing reforms might our collective legacy provide, if we were to consciously answer that call? As the Greek proverb reminds us, “A society grows great when its elders plant trees whose shade they shall never sit in.”
Meg Newhouse is the founder of The Life Planning Network, an independent educator and author, most recently of Legacies of the Heart: Living a Life That Matters (2016). For the past 20+ years she has worked with people in midlife and beyond to craft fulfilling and contributing lives through Passion & Purpose LifeCrafting. She has been active in the Conscious Elders Network from its early stages. She has helped plan five Positive Aging conferences and co-edited LPN’s book, Live Smart After 50.
Meg is passionate about conscious aging, sacred activism, and much more– including her family/grandchildren and friends, music (flute and singing), nature, yoga, learning/growth. She lives near Boston.