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Don’t create your legacy – claim it

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Near the end of the movie Schindler’s List, there’s a gut-wrenching moment when the Jews who’ve been kept alive by Oskar Schindler prepare to leave his factory. Hearing their moving tributes, he sobs, “I could have got more out. I didn’t do enough,” and collapses in tears.

Schindler saved 1100 lives.

Happily, the movie doesn’t end there. In a brilliant cut, director Stephen Spielberg fades from a black and white shot of Schindler’s Jewish workers, marching to their freedom, into a color shot of hundreds of people marching forward in modern dress. These are not actors – they’re the real survivors and descendants of Schindler’s legacy. (I dare you to watch this without weeping!)


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We can’t always know our impact on others.

How many of us feel a version of Schindler’s ache, as we look back at our lives, and wonder, “Did I do what I was meant to do?” or “Could I have done more?”

My husband’s lament sounds like, “I should have done more to impact policy in Washington.”

“What?” I want to say, (trying to suppress the urge to say, “You’re crazy”). “You were never a legislator. You’re an extremely kind guy who’s a car nut. You show your care whenever you help somebody buy a car. You generously give time to friends when they’re going through tough places. And you make my mother smile even when she can barely communicate. That’s a legacy to be proud of!”

To claim our legacy requires lifting off the lens of what we “should have done” and who we “should be” to embrace our wonderfully peculiar biographies and the uniqueness of who we are and what life has given us.

And, as we lift the veil of self-judgment, we notice that our greatest accomplishments are often not the projects we created or outward signs of success, but the lives we touched.

Sometimes we talk about a legacy as something we need to achieve – making it another purpose-filled values-rich entry on our to-do list.

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Facing the road ahead

As the road ahead of us grows shorter, and the road behind us long, our legacy may be less about what we still want to do and more about embracing who we are and who we have been.

To claim our living legacy, why not applaud both the races we won and the ones we lost, the successes and the failures – and everything life has taught us. Let’s salute the hidden resilience that has kept us going and the unique thread of us-ness that makes us who we are.

Finding your story

You don’t have to write a memoir, create a digital story, or put together scrapbooks in order to claim your legacy – unless you want to create products for others to see. The path forward is much simpler. Just acknowledge where you are today and take a look back, scanning for patterns in your life’s trip tracks.

You can ask a few simple questions:

  • When I was young, where did I find joy?
  • What am I most proud of?
  • Where was I deeply challenged and how did I meet these challenges?
  • What have I learned from my successes and my failures?
  • If my life were a song, what would the title be?

Often, our friends find it a lot easier to describe our special qualities than we do!

The secret to making your legacy come alive

A storyteller knows that a story requires a listener to bring it alive. Our legacy needs someone who can sit with us without judgment, embrace our stories, and acknowledge, at the end, what an amazing life we have lived.

Our legacy wants a witness.

Life will always have its mysteries and we don’t need to wrap our legacy in a tidy bow.

What matters is how we experience it, looking at the road ahead with serenity as we give thanks for our past, knowing that we can already claim the legacy we have lived.


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