What kind of legacy are you leaving? Maybe you’ve decided what to do with your money and property, but what are you going to do with the family stories, the lessons learned, and the promises made to future generations. These are the legacies of values we explore in the Five Pillars of Aging.
Legacy is a term that can be applied in many different ways. An essential element of a legacy is that it has value not just for the present, but also in its historical origins and future possibilities. Legacies come in many different forms: genetic, property, psychological, economic, memories, resilience, beliefs, politics, religion, and what I call ‘Dark Legacies’ – legacies of shame and sorrow that we carry from generation to generation.
What can we make of these legacies, especially given that our individual and generational reality is so different? How can we sort through the legacies left to us and determine what we will choose to leave behind for those who follow?
Knowing what your values are is essential to determining which legacies are worthy of being passed down. Personal “values” are the systems we have developed within ourselves as well as inherited from our family, community, culture, and spiritual tradition that influence what we choose to make us happy and guide us when we have difficult decisions to make.
Personal “values” are the systems that influence what we choose to make us happy and guide us when we have difficult decisions to make.
Values are very personal things, but they come from shared cultural and social contexts. Values like loyalty, duty, and honor showed up in my family and were mirrored in the political and cultural beliefs of my parents.
All of these conspire to create the legacy I inherited that informs me positively or negatively about growing old. I believe it is essential for us to sift through these legacies and explore what will be useful to us as we age, what might create problems or challenges for us, and which of it needs to be left behind. Then, and only then, can we begin to create a legacy we want for those who come after.
Do our values change as we age? Based on my research and the work of other psychologists and spiritual writers, the things we value do not change. For example, if you grew up in a family where it was important for you to do your chores, show up on time, and be respectful to elders, then most likely you will continue to hold those values as important as you get older. If you resented being made to do chores, you might value setting your own goals and accomplishing tasks on your own timeline.
Our parents and grandparents encountered catastrophic events during their lifetimes. They lived through World Wars, racial and political persecution, famine, drought, economic collapse, and disease. Out of their struggles, many developed strategies of resilience that have been passed down as legacy. Some of these legacies involved stories of how they overcame obstacles, lived through unspeakable events, found ways to create beauty and joy out of suffering and deprivation or persecution. Some of these legacies resulted in establishing groups and institutions committed to protecting others from having to experience similar trauma.
It is worth the time and effort to explore these legacies with your parents or grandparents who remain. If they are no longer with you, then exploring their lives through accounts from contemporaries, reading letters and books, seeking out information from newspapers and newsreels can be invaluable to better understand the how and why of the decisions you have made during your life. It is also foundational to finding different ways to do things as you break new ground and follow your path of aging.
There can be no denying that many of us inherited what I call dark legacies. These shame-based legacies include beliefs that we are not good enough, that we can never have what others have, and that we are somehow tainted. They also include very real legacies of abuse, racism, sexism, persecution and violence. In some cases, these legacies are generations-long. Understanding what lies behind the legacy (the how, what, and why) is important in determining whether you want to pass that part of the legacy on or create a new legacy.
In my experience, these legacies can be powerful motivators for change as well as holding us hostage and keeping us from moving forward. In my own family we have legacies of alcoholism, suicide, molestation, and gender-identity prejudice. We also have legacies of social justice, community service, and compassion. In my work with others, I have intentionally used my family to illustrate how wounds can be healed and families made whole again. This comes from one of my core values of honesty.
It is vital that these dark legacies be acknowledged so that we can make sure we don’t intentionally pass them on. How this is achieved is not the focus of this book. Many resources exist to address these issues, and I encourage those of you who have dark legacies to bring light to them so that they are not passed on.
Exploring Our Legacies
I believe it is essential that we take time to explore the legacies we inherited. This helps better understand how we make decisions and where our preferences and prejudices originate. In many ways, this is like looking at the blueprint for the house you have built. In seeing the foundation, you can make informed decisions about what changes (if any) need to be made to insure that your house remains standing.
Thanks for reading!