Elizabeth Gilbert’s (writer of Eat, Pray and Love) father is a Vietnam veteran. She recently shared a very touching conversation between her father and a woman of his age, who had been a hippie and anti-Vietnam War protestor. The woman said to her father, “I was against the war, but I’m sorry that we didn’t respect your service and your sacrifice back then.”
Elizabeth’s father reached across the table, took this woman’s hand and said, “Thank you for saying that. But here’s the thing — your side was right. The protestors were correct. The Vietnam War was unjust and inhumane. I didn’t know it back then, but I know it now. You were right to protest. You were on the right side of history. Without your protests, the war would’ve gone on even longer.”
The woman said, “But all the same — I thank you for your service.” And Elizabeth’s father said, “And I thank you for your protest.”
Both, Elizabeth’s father and the hippie woman have legacies they will be leaving behind. Their stories.
We too will leave our stories behind, and they will be our legacies more than anything else.
If my story is the legacy I am leaving behind then what is my story?
I have never seen my life as a story before. Things that happened in my life are mundane and commonplace. Choices were made, some by me, some by others for me. I got educated, found a good job, built myself a home. I got married, had kids, raised them like everybody else. Where is the story?
And yet when I look at other people’s lives, I can see their stories.
I can see the story in my parents’ struggle, their commitment to give us a good life and their conviction to their professions. I could see Elizabeth Gilbert’s father’s story. A Vietnam veteran who probably went to war at a very young age, to fight a fight which wasn’t his or even his country’s fight. Yet he put his life on the line not knowing until years later that he was fighting on the wrong side.
I could see the story of the woman protester who, equally young, fought a fight on the streets of her hometown, for a cause that didn’t directly affect her. But it mattered so much to her that she chose to face rubber bullets and water canons to make a difference.
Aaha! therein lies the legacy worth leaving behind.
My parents’ legacy was their struggles to fight the scarcities of life of their era to build a better life for themselves and their children. They did that through the medium of education. Their contribution was the propagation of education not only for their own children but for all the children. They were both teachers.
Elizabeth’s father’s legacy is in knowing that he was on the wrong side of the war, accepting that, rehabilitating himself, and becoming a contributing member of society.
The woman protestor’s legacy lies is raising her voice to help make a change so big that it saved thousands of lives and changed the course of history.
We all have stories.
Our stories lie in the choices we make, the lessons we learn, the things we do.
Most of the time we do these without realising that our choices, our lessons and our actions are going to stay behind long after we are gone.
That realisation itself is powerful. Now that we know what our stories are, we can make better stories. We can make better choices. We can learn more meaningful and deep lessons. We can do things that really matter. So that when we come face to face with our mortality we are ready.
We are not used to preparing for our mortality.
Which is a shame.
Death is as much part of life as birth is. We make so much preparation for the arrival of a new life but we don’t prepare ourselves for leaving this life. By that, I don’t mean leaving behind a will or writing your funeral plan. I mean writing your stories.
Have you recorded what choices you made and what lessons you learned? Have you written down which side you chose in the moment of controversy and which fight you fought to make a change?
Ever since I have entered the second half of my life I have more vigilant of my choices. Although the first half of my life seemed mundane and commonplace it still many stories of choices made and lessons learned.
And now that I know that everything I do will one day become my legacy, I can live the rest of my life to make better stories.