Staring at my grandmother’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, I was struck by how inadequate the words on her tombstone were to summarize her life:
Pauline M. Dodson
Mar 28 1912
Jan 26 2008
I felt a pang of indignation as I reflected on how little information that actually told people about Nana’s long life. Beyond her birth and death dates, all her tombstone revealed to those who didn’t know Nana personally was that she had been married to Grandpa. His stone gave only a bit more information — the dates of his lifetime, and his military resume basics: “LT (JG), US Coast Guard, World War II.” Nana hadn’t been in the military; nor had she ever worked professionally other than in a humble job as a cafeteria hostess at her children’s elementary school. But the terse phrase “His Wife” on her grave irked me since it gave the impression that her own contributions in life weren’t worthy to be remembered after death.
The tombstones gave one story, but my memories of Nana and Grandpa presented a far different story.
When I reflected on both of their lives, I didn’t think in terms of facts that would appear on a resume, such as dates or occupations. Instead, what naturally came to mind about them were the legacies they had left behind. The eulogies that our family gave at their funerals barely mentioned facts that would fit on a resume — the work they did and when they did it — but focused instead on the impact that their efforts made on the world. A resume-like tombstone in a prestigious cemetery might look impressive, but it didn’t tell the story of what really mattered. For the real story, people could talk to their friends, neighbors, and the children they raised. Legacies express themselves through relationships. The dead live on through the legacies they leave behind with the living.
So what will our legacies be? If we’re too busy building our resumes, we won’t have time and energy left to build our legacies.
Too often, our society celebrates resume values — work accomplishments — over everything else in life. We’ll likely be asked first when meeting someone new: “What do you do?” as if our jobs are our identities and our value will be measured by the amount of our work achievements. We’ll encounter pressure to spend our limited time and energy working so hard that we’re too exhausted to do much else. We can easily find ourselves alive, yet not fully living.
It’s by pursuing legacy values that we can really thrive. The values that build strong legacies are those that involve living fully with other people, like: enjoying good conversations, helping and encouraging each other with kindness, expressing gratitude, listening to each other’s stories, laughing together, making love, going on adventures, discovering wonder, learning from our mistakes, forgiving those who have hurt us, giving generously to people in need, volunteering for a cause, and using our creativity to contribute to the world in the ways we’re each uniquely wired to do.
We may be accomplishing a lot at work — or not. Regardless, what truly matters is whether or not we’re relating to other people with an open mind and heart. That kind of choice, repeated every day, will point us toward our purposes and help us build positive legacies.
Grandpa had an impressive resume, filled with accomplishments at top military and civilian jobs. Nana had very little to put on a resume, other than “homemaker.”
Grandpa’s legacy, unfortunately, was of many estranged relationships. Many in our family have said that Grandpa was cold, distant, and sometimes mean. They recalled that he worked a lot, yet spent little time investing in the relationships that matter most. I remember wanting to get closer to him, yet being rebuffed by him. After work, he often sat alone on a sofa watching TV and drinking beer, even though he had plenty of opportunities to live more fully.
Nana, however, invested her life in legacy values. She became known as someone people could confide in — someone who would listen well, and care. No matter what else was on her schedule as a mom of four children and grandmother to many, Nana made herself available to help friends and family whenever they needed her. She gave her time, energy, and money generously to others. She was a peacemaker, too, helping many people resolve conflicts with each other. Her tombstone doesn’t say any of that.
At the cemetery, I slowly walked away from their graves and reflected on how I wanted to live my own life. Work has always been important to me. In fact, I’m passionate about what I do on the job. But I’ve decided that turning off my phone and letting email pile up is a small price to pay for the time to invest in other values that matter more. I take vacations — and enjoy them — with my family. I meet friends for long lunches and listen well. I make time to laugh with my son, walk with my husband, and play with our cat. I volunteer in our community on a regular basis.
What about you? How can you start building the legacy you’d like to leave behind?
Let’s boldly imagine ourselves dead from time to time, so we can stay on track with the right priorities to fully live.
Whitney Hopler works as Communications Director at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB) and has written for many media organizations, from About.com to the Washington Post. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and connect with CWB on Twitter and Facebook.