I have known a lot of people who live by a spiritual code which teaches them that to help others is the most important thing to do in life. It’s an honorable code by which to live, and I agree with the sentiment. But I’ve also known a lot of people who live this to such an extreme that they fail to help themselves and, even worse, help others at the cost of their own health and well-being.
Inevitably, this kind of pursuit leads to a life consumed by suffering and victimization, a constant state of sorrow brought on by a disconnect between the personal rewards one expects to get from being charitable and kind and the actual results of pouring oneself out to the point of emptiness. We probably all have that friend who wonders why they always help everyone around them, but when they need help there is nobody to answer the call.
I was recently talking to a friend who was going through such a situation, and they bemoaned the fact that they gave and gave and got nothing in return. They expressed that the most important thing to them was the legacy they left behind; that they wanted the world to remember them as giving and charitable and loving and kind. Not stepping up when volunteers were needed, not saying yes when people asked for favors, not giving when others expressed need might damage that legacy and brand them as selfish and stingy.
After the conversation, I got to thinking about this desire to leave a positive legacy. I think it’s an extremely common desire in humanity, perhaps universal. We want our lives to mean something, for those who come after us to remember us in positive terms. We want to leave the world a better place than it was when we entered.
The thing is, we all leave a legacy whether we try to or not. It may not be the legacy we wished to leave, either. And one way or another, that legacy will have a positive net effect on human existence, even if we are remembered as a cautionary tale. Even Hitler’s legacy has a positive side, in that we now live in a world which seeks to prevent such hatred and genocide. The world’s eyes were opened just that much more.
Furthermore, our legacy has less to do with our actions than what our stories teach others. My friend sought to leave a legacy of generosity and compassion. But if those around him look at his life they are more likely to learn that there is a price to pay for giving too much, that helping doesn’t always take the form of fulfilling every request. And that is a positive legacy, too, but not the one he hopes to leave.
Maybe, then, if we wish to leave a positive legacy when we are gone, we should be more concerned with being an example than being a resource. We should think more about what we can show others than what we can bequeath to them. It’s nice to build something to leave to the next generation, but even more beneficial to teach the next generation to build. It’s great to be remembered as loving, but better to be remembered as the one who taught how to love.