Three Questions We Must Ask Ourselves, Part Three

legacy - isolated word in vintage letterpress wood type

Our days are happier when we use them to build something more durable than mere days. The third of the three crucial questions to keep in mind when we are evaluating how we use our time points us toward that truth.

Of course, you want to make sure the activities you engage in push you forward and that they create value for others, but to really have a sense that what you are doing matters, you have to think long-term. That means asking yourself whether what you are doing contributes to building a legacy. You must ask yourself whether what you are doing will go beyond merely creating value for those near you in the here and now, and ask how you can magnify that positive impact across time.

Having a positive impact across time means creating things that will outlast you. You might create material objects, or you might not, but the goal is the same: to expand your impact beyond the scope of your short life.

Most people try to achieve this by having children. Whether for good or for ill, parents extend their reach into the world through the way they rear their offspring. We all know cases where we wish this were not true. We’ve all seen parents whom we well know are stuffing their kids full of pain and anger and sending them into the world either as bombs waiting to detonate, or as containers of emotional toxic waste who, as their manufactured exteriors break down, leak sludge that poisons whatever it touches.

Rarer are those parents who have the opposite effect. Once in a while, we see parents who extend their legacy by sending out into the world kids ready to take it on. Their homes have made people who are balanced, well-adjusted with a good grasp on reality.

Most families are a mixed bag, some of both. The point is that children are a natural way that people extend their personalities and power into the world for good or for ill.

For some, kids are not enough. Some of us desire to create more, to establish work that lasts. We seek to accomplish this through artistic, intellectual and entrepreneurial activity, all of which require a higher level of awareness.

Where having children is a natural urge most people feel, endeavoring to build a legacy through one’s work requires both foresight and the discipline. It requires keeping the future in mind even in the middle of hectic, unfulfilling days. It means living for what is not yet seen, believing in the realization of what is now only mere possibility.

This isn’t easy and, for all of us, it is, at times, impossible. We have to train ourselves to cast our minds forward into years to come, years we will not be around to see. If we pay attention, it’s easy to see when we are wasting our time on frivolous activities. We have a sense that we are cheating ourselves with too much of that.

It’s harder to really have a sense that we are cheating others further down the stream of time from us by squandering the chance to build something that will last.  Even if we are people inclined to be productive, inclined to be asking always whether our choices are pushing us forward and whether they are creating value for others, we can miss out on building something that lasts.

By remembering that we are building a legacy, we can discriminate between good options. Not all good options lead to a legacy. Talking about politics online, for example, might yield some benefit in the short term, but what about when the election is over? To build a legacy requires focusing on ideas and themes that transcend the moment, indeed all the moments of our lives. Only by focusing on the long-term effects of our choices can we identify the best options.

Bearing in mind the task of building a legacy helps dispel the sense of meaninglessness many people feel. When we connect to the future through actively choosing activities that contribute to work that lasts, we connect to meaning. Our days cease to be isolated units of passing time and become integrated into the flow of history. By casting ourselves forward into the years ahead, we find solace in the present. When we make choices to contribute to those in the future, we wake up each day with something to look forward to.

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