We leave behind a legacy every day, through the encounters we have with others.
This past week my husband and I traveled to California to celebrate the life of his uncle, Gabriel Unda. There was some conversation afterwards surrounding the beautiful way he had impacted many lives which led to thoughts wondering about the legacy we will leave behind. How we touch one another’s lives, and the intricate pattern we weave as we wander through our experiences on earth is magical. We wondered, “Did he know? Did he know what a strong legacy he was leaving behind? Did he know how loved was across generations? Did he know how important he was in the stories people shared?
Oh I so hope he did. If there is anyone we credit with having a positive impact on our lives, we should tell them now.
I’ve been on a mission to find my English high school teacher, Ms. Martell. She was tough and many students disliked her intensely. I loved her. She recommended me for honors English during my senior year where I was pushed to read a book a week, she praised my poetry, encouraged my writing and introduced me to “Tale of Two Cities.” It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I sat in the front row and was not afraid that she would call on me. Today, I want to tell her how much her encouragement meant to me, how it still rings in my ears, how without her push I might have stopped believing in myself. She saw something in me at a time when I was discouraged from becoming who I most wanted to be, a teacher and writer. 46 years later and I still remember.
There was a man in Starbucks back in June of 2010. I was wearing a beautiful gray sleeveless dress and high heeled gray platform sandals as I ordered my latte. My youngest daughter was graduating from high school later that morning, and I would be attending alone, as a divorced mom. This man stopped me before he left and told me I was beautiful and that I had lovely eyes and then he walked out the door. No pick up line, no request for my phone number; he asked nothing in return. While I wasn’t lonely, I worried I would stand out like a sore thumb at the ceremony in this wealthy suburban town in the midst of the families who sat together, and who rarely invited me to their family celebrations now. That man returned my confidence when I most needed it.
After that encounter, I tried to be mindful of my interactions. Sometimes I paid the toll for someone behind me, sometimes I made up the difference in money a child needed at the same Starbucks. Other times I would tell a woman she had extraordinary eyes or how much I loved her sweater. Once I asked the woman checking me out in a grocery store how she was as she slammed my items on the moving belt and she slowed down, softened and said, “Thank you for asking.”
I hate chitter chatter, meaningless small talk, but I try to see the person I am standing across from, waiters, bartenders, baristas.
Sometimes I wonder if I have affected lives. Is there anyone out there that might speak at my memorial of how I created a positive influence in their life? How I encouraged them when others didn’t? How their career path was one that I motivated? How I made them smile?
I hope so. But I also hope they won’t wait for my funeral. I hope they tell me now.
I believe that the majority of human beings are good. This does not mean that I think we are unicorns living in a rainbow society; not at all. But I do believe that underneath all our posturing, avoidance, and fear, especially fear, we want to feel noticed, known, appreciated. We want to know that our life is making a difference.
Rob and I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” every holiday season. I couldn’t count how many times I’ve seen this movie, but James Stewart’s experience still resonates inside me today. Like his character, I’ve had moments where I wonder what the point is in my ‘penny-ante life’ in the midst of what feels, at times, like a Mr. Potter world. There are moments I feel small and insignificant, meaningless. We all have moments like this.
Then maybe someone writes to me and tells me that my words helped them or that my portraits made them see their own beauty and I realize that this magic is around us all the time. We have immense powers to affect one another through a smile, a heartfelt inquiry or an offering of condolence, and especially through our relationships. These magical threads are woven through our life experience like a web, sticky and lasting.
A man walks into Starbucks to grab a coffee and because of his comment leaves behind a woman who regains her balance in her new life.
An English teacher raises the bar and offers encouragement, and her student finds the resolve to grow her confidence in her writing.
We don’t need to be the biggest donors to a non-profit or sit on a powerful board that influences positive change. We don’t need to make millions of dollars, or be known throughout the world to leave a legacy. We leave behind a legacy every day, through the encounters we have with others. We are touched by the kindness of strangers, the helping hand when needed, the driver who waves us through the intersection with a smile.
We leave behind something every single moment we are alive.
We are touched by those in our midst every single day.
And we should tell them that. Tell them now.