V. 5. Inter-generational "Living Legacies"

Creating a real and truthful "Living Legacy" can both transform our own lives and be of real use to our descendants.

One of the most powerful activities we can engage in to transform our lives by facing death is to create inter-generational "living legacies." Adults can either on their own, or together with their offspring or other relatives and friends, create records of their lives that may of interest to their grandchildren, descendants, or others. Younger people can initiate the process, seeking out their parents, relatives, or other older people to interview about their lives.

It is important to begin this process now, partly because death can come at any time, and our experience of life up until now can be useful to our descendants. But we need to begin now for another, key, reason: the very act of creating a "living legacy" is invigorating, can help cultivate a life-affirming death awareness, and leave us feeling more truly alive. Also, thinking about our legacy can alter the way we live long before we die.

It is useful to think of dividing our "Living Legacy" into a "core legacy" of key items, and a "full legacy" of more material we might want to include. It is an unfortunate reality that descendants are frequently not as interested in their ancestors as the latter hope. Overwhelming them with material may dilute its impact or lead it to be simply ignored.

Our "core legacy" might thus ideally consist of a relatively few items, that are easily transportable, stored and above all retrievable. The key might be information that can fit on a computer disk, such as a videotaped interview of an hour or two, a few key writings, a limited number of photos. Our "full legacy" might include all of the above, and whatever else we think might interest those who will follow us.

Experience indicates that such a "living legacy" can be most effective if it follows some or all of the following guidelines:

-- We might begin by asking ourselves what we wish we knew about our grandparents, great-grandparents, or great-great-parents. It might be everything possible about them. Or it might be certain areas of key interest. If we can identify such areas, it might be well to focus on them in creating our own living legacy. And, of course, if we are co-designing one with our children, grandchildren, or other young people, it is most useful to ask them what would interest them.

-- In general, it seems safe to assume that our descendants will be more interested in the personal details of who we are than what we did. They will be interested in our personality, character, values, beliefs, and daily life more than the vacations we took. They will enjoy our genuine sincerity, humor, pain or wackiness more than the professional face we put on in formal settings. They will be interested in learning personal details about the kind of people our parents and grandparents were, and how they influenced us for good and evil, more than the details of what they did for a living or a list of their virtues. Our video or audio interviews would ideally convey not simply information, but who we are. We would ideally not shrink from conveying emotion and feeling, speaking with conviction about our own deeply-felt experiences. And we would avoid sermonizing, lecturing or pontificating like the plague.

-- Of course, if we were involved in external events of historical interest, major or minor, it is useful to recount them. But, again, we cannot assume they will be interested. Following the "living legacy golden rule" - "do not speak of anything that would not deeply interest you if you were hearing it from an ancestor" - is useful. It can be extremely valuable to speak of our experiences in Vietnam. But only if the stories we tell are powerful, succinct, and convey a lesson or higher message. People are often bored by "war stories" of any variety even when the teller is alive, let alone afterwards.

-- It is critical not to bore . We cannot automatically assume they'll be interested in every aspect of our everyday experiences just because we are their ancestors. Generalities, such as praising long-gone people they will never meet without conveying their importance to our story, will not be useful. Nor is an idealized or censored version of our life. They are quite likely to be interested, however, if we are real , admitting our faults, failures and vulnerabilities as well as recounting our successes and good points.

-- One useful approach is to think in terms of the lessons of our life, "what we know now that we wish we knew then." Such lessons are of the greatest value when they are the result of hard-earned experiences and recounted in story form, rather than as intellectual ideas or maxims. The idea is to give those who will follow us a chance to learn from the stripes on our backs, so that they can make their own mistakes rather than repeating ours. They will likely be interested in such issues as what we learned about relationship, child-rearing, work, balancing work and leisure, as a result of our mistakes as well as our successes. Understanding the periods of our life that we wasted, or the major mistakes we made, will be of as much or greater value than understanding our successes.

-- They will likely be interested in the key experiences of your life that made you who you are. Again, such experiences are recounted most effectively when they are a mix of succinct stories dealing with actual experiences and lessons learned.

-- Our "living legacy" can be particularly useful to us and our descendants if it includes attempts to "close" with people with whom we were once close but are presently estranged from. Writing letters to such people in our lives that deal honestly with the outstanding issues between us and them, whether or not we send them, can help us heal and convey important information to those who will read it in the future.

-- Ideally, such a "living legacy" would include unburdening ourselves of any secrets or key information about ourselves that we have never or rarely shared with anyone. We benefit by unburdening ourselves, but doing so is also critical if our descendants are to really learn from our lives. We can ensure that portions of our "living legacy" will not be revealed until after our death.

It is sad to say, but most of us are rarely completely truthful, even with those close to us. Our "living legacy", even if not to be revealed until after our death, can be an opportunity to speak totally truthfully, without defensiveness, fear, guilt or shame, about who we really are and how we have really lived. As such, it can be healing for us to create it. And the more it is honest, real, genuine and authentic, the more it will be of interest and use to those who will follow us. Partial history is only of partial use to those seeking to learn from it.