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The Grey Matters – What Does it Mean to Leave a Legacy?

| Posted by Harlan

The Grey Matters was the landing spot for the creative and contemplative works that bounce around the confines of my head, as well as the inspirations that put them there. With the re-release of Viva, we decided to merge the blogs. Click here for more behind the meaning behind TGM.

I spend a considerable amount of time pondering the meaning of legacy, and what I’ll leave behind when I exit this life, whether that be music or writings, money for my kids, a great lesson or thought. It’s easy to think of legacy in terms of retirement plans and savings accounts, life insurance or possessions we can give our children and grandchildren to help their lives along. Conversely, I think of burdens, and the often intense desire to leave behind nothing that will cause more stress or fatigue on my already over-extended loved ones. To be honest, I think about this more often than I’d like to admit.

It’s taken me a long time to come to the realization that legacy is not at it’s heart that obvious something that you yourself leave behind, at least not directly. The truest legacy is much less visible.

I have been very fortunate in my life to experience the greatness of a big family. My grandparents had four kids, who in turn had four, five, even six kids of their own. That’s my generation, and we’ve continued on the tradition by having tons of kids of our own. (That is, except me, I’m in the minority with only one child.) I know a lot about my parents and how they grew up; I even know quite a bit about my grandparents and how they lived. I’m the third to bear my name, my grandfather obviously being the first. Before he passed away, I asked him where the name came from, specifically Harlan, as I’d grown fond of that name and had chosen it as the name I’d prefer to be called. He told me of a handyman who had become friends with my great-grandparents. He didn’t know much about the handyman, and didn’t have any great stories of my great-grandmother being rescued from a burning building, and while clutching his final breath and looking into her eyes, she says, “I won’t forget you. I’ll name our child after you.” Maybe that happened, but I doubt it.

The real likelihood is he was a great friend – someone they could count on and talk to when they needed him. He appreciated them, and the feeling was mutual. No fame, fortune, no lesson, no music, no art. At least, not that we remember.

It’s a particularly somber thought to consider someone would be forgotten. But truthfully, how often do we remember the things from other people? How often do we recall the lessons or the possessions that they passed on? Maybe there is a trinket or a valuable that has been handed down, but that’s usually the extent of it. Please understand, this isn’t a slight on our ancestors and their accomplishments; we should be proud of them. That said, the impact that most of us will have, our legacy, will not be in the things that we leave behind. A generation or so down the line, it’s very likely any music or writing that I produce will be all but forgotten.

Legacy – unadulterated and true – is in the ripple effect.

The truest legacy is in the subtle shifts you make in the culture of the people around you. Those directly in your circle of influence. Your kindness, compassion, love, fight, courage, strength, sacrifice for others creates a ripple in others. That ripple extends and impacts others. It may sound cliché, but ripple after ripple can have a drastic impact on the direction of others. So much so that the impact you have on one person could eventually completely alter the direction of someone you don’t even know. And what’s more, their change in direction impacts others – so you’re included in that legacy.

A few years ago I saw a fascinating movie called The Butterfly Effect that spoke of this, albeit in a different way and with a different outcome than I’d have preferred. In the movie, Ashton Kutcher’s character, Evan, suffers blackouts during moments of stress, and during one moment (I’m paraphrasing – I won’t spoil the movie) while reading his journal, discovers he can travel through time and relive some of the moments from his life. In these do-overs, he completely changes the future through the Butterfly Effect, or the idea that one small change in a pattern – or life, to put it broadly – can drastically alter the end result. It’s fascinating to see how one simple choice can have such a profound affect on someone else’s entire being.

Unless you know something I don’t, we don’t have the opportunities like Evan to take mulligans on our life. The impact we have on those around us are there to stay. The stone has broken the surface, and the ripples are now out of your control. I say this to encourage you to never take for granted your interactions with people, because today is your legacy. The people around you and everyone they’ll ever know is your legacy. Your mere presence on earth is enough to change it for good.

Let me leave you with a practical example from my own life. My good friend Curtis introduced me to my wife. My life and experiences with her impact both of us. When we became pregnant, after several years of trying, we endured a difficult pregnancy which led us to an incredible birth story. There are people we don’t know that visit our blog everyday to read our birth story…it’s the top hit on our personal blog and we don’t know where the traffic comes from. Those moments strengthened us and helped others get through tough situations of their own. Each person that is encouraged by that experience in our life is given license to encourage others. All of those people learn and grow because of our story. Now we have Baron, and he’s a stellar kid. His enthusiasm affects not only me but all who meet him. I can’t imagine – nor do I have any desire to imagine – what my life, Yvette’s life, and the lives of those we know would look like had Curtis never introduced us. I do know things would look differently for ALL of those people.

It’s good to leave your family, your loved ones, and your planet in a better situation than you came into it. It’s commendable to be a contributing member of society in that way. It’s even more important to take every opportunity you have with someone else to make a positive impression and impact. You just never know who it will impact in the end. I never met the Harlan whom my name came from, odds are he never met the Harlan that his came from, but I bear the name proudly, knowing I’m a part of a legacy of caring that is generations old.

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