I love this gem of a book by Sister Joan Chittister given to me by a dear friend and soulful sister. Thank you, Bess Piñon. It is my belief that we all face important questions at the end of our lives that are best answered in the way we live our lives now. What really matters most to each of us here, now, today? Are we rooted into a path of becoming ourselves, who we most authentically and wholly are? Or are we holding back, managing our outward images and containing our deeper inner feelings and needs, pretending to ourselves and others something other than our deepest truths? Most essentially, are we kind? Who do we extend kindness to? Who do we exclude? Are we working to mindfully expand our circle of caring to include ourselves and all beings? Why? Most important, are we loving? What does our loving look like? How can we grow even more deeply loving? What is our contribution? How have we touched the hearts of others? What is the legacy we will leave? What are we leaving behind?
Bless us all on our journeys - Molly
"Nothing is more dishonorable than the old, heavy with years," Seneca wrote, "who have no other evidence of having lived long except age."
Something almost unbearably painful revolves around graves of unknown soldiers, around potters' fields, around unclaimed bodies in city morgues. But it is not only the anonymity of death that weighs so heavily here. It is surely because a life is gone from us and we have no way of knowing what legacy it left behind.
But there is a big difference between leaving a legacy and leaving a "legacy."
In modern society, to leave a "legacy" ordinarily means to specify the distribution of property - money, in most cases - to heirs according to the terms described in the legal document known as a will. It's a relatively rare event for most people to be mentioned in a will.
And yet, people talk all the time about how the life of a person, now deceased, has enriched them. The common denominator of all death - rich or poor, male or female, powerful or powerless - is not the will, not the money. It is the immaterial legacy, the true enrichment, each of us has gained by having our lives touched by those who have gone before us.
And those legacies are not rare at all. They are what connects us both to the past and to the future.
What we are inclined to forget is that each of us leaves a legacy, whether we mean to, whether we want to or not. Our legacies are the quality of the lives we leave behind. What we have been will be stamped on the hearts of those who survive us for years to come. The only question is, will we cultivate that living legacy as carefully as bankers and tax collectors and lawyers do the material wills that distribute nothing but stocks and bonds and insurance policies and savings accounts which might disappear with the legal fees they generate?
What are we leaving behind? That is the question that marks the timbre of a lifetime.
We leave behind our attitude toward the world. We are remembered for whether or not we inspired in others a love for life and an openness to all of those who lived it with us. We will be remembered for our smiles and for our frowns, for our laughter and for our complaints, for our kindness and for our selfishness.
We leave behind for all the world to see the value system that marks everything we do. People who never asked us directly what we valued in life never doubt for a moment what it was. They know if we cared for the Earth because they watched us as we seeded our flowerbeds - or let the debris from the garbage spill over into what could have been a garden. They know what we thought of people of color or creeds by the language we used and the lives we connected with. They know the depth of our spiritual life by the way we treated those around us and what we thought of life and what we gave our lives to doing.
We leave behind the memory of the way we treated strangers, how we loved the individuals closest to us, how we cred for those who loved us, how we spoke to them in hard times, how we gave ourselves away to satisfy their needs.
We leave behind in our positions on death and life, on purpose and meaning, a model of relationship with God. Our own spiritual life is both challenge and support to the spiritual struggles of those around us. As they themselves approach the moment of truth, like us, they look for models of what is means to go beyond speculation, despite uncertainty.
Our legacy is far more than our fiscal worth. Our legacy does not end the day we die. We have added to it every moment of our lives. It is the crowning moment of the aging process. It is the major task of these years. In this period of life, we have both the vision and the wisdom to see that the legacy is what we want it to be.
If we need to erase old memories and create new ones, this is the time to do it.
If we have lived an unbalanced life, more emphasis on consumption and accumulation than on giving and sharing and saving, these are the years in which to change our way of living so that others can live well.
If we have neglected the development of the spirit for the sake of the material, we have the time now to think again about what is means to be alive, to be full of life, to love all of life, to be full of God. These can be the years when our spirits soar beyond any old injuries, above all the old pettiness, overcome all the engrained prejudices that have kept us from enriching our lives with friends who are black and brown and yellow and red and white. Who are other than we are. Whose lives are different than ours. Who have much to teach us about many other ways of being in the world.
If we need to rethink all the old ideas that are now so much in conflict with the world around us, if we need to rethink even our notion of God, now is the time to give ourselves to the real issues of life. The issues are not jobs and money, prestige and status, superiority and arrogance.
It is time to ask ourselves what legacy we are leaving behind. Because one thing is for sure: whether or not we give much thought to it, everyone else we know will.
A burden of these years is to give in to the thought that personal spiritual growth is no longer an issue for us and so leave the world a legacy of incompleteness.
A blessing of these years is to have the time to complete in ourselves what has been neglected all these years, so that the legacy we leave to others is equal to the full potential within us.
- Joan Chittister
Excerpted from The Gift of Years:
Growing Old Gracefully