I have this great need to be meaningful—to do something monumental with my life and to leave artifacts in my wake that will be remembered. Part of it is certainly a personality thing, but part of it is just a human thing. We are made for meaning.
To varying degrees, we all want to leave our mark; to be impactful with our lives. At its worst, this can look cut throat and desperate. It can look like self-promotion and unhealthy competition. At its best, it looks like self-actualized humans running in their own lanes and living as healthy versions of themselves; rising to become who they were created to be.
As one who longs for meaning, the thought of wasting this one life I have to live here on earth—whether by laziness or by focusing on the wrong things—is the most dismal of thoughts. I want to leave a legacy that points to the important things. But figuring out what’s truly important can take a little time.
End of life musings get shared around occasionally, like “At the end of your life, no one says, oh man, I wish I’d worked more.” These citations can feel a little trite out of context or they can serve to refocus our frenzied efforts. The point is, when we mistakenly ascribe more value than warranted to the things deemed important by society, we can end up spending our one life proving ourselves and potentially missing the most important things.
Lest there be misunderstanding, I should restate that I’m the exact opposite of laissez-faire. Though I’ve mellowed with age, I am as driven and Type-A as they come. I place a very high value on education. I want to provide financially for my family. I want to be known as someone who did something with her life. If you’re called to it, there is nothing wrong with ascending the corporate ladder, excelling in your field, getting a publishing deal, winning the gold medal. But what if these are meant to be the side benefits of those living their fullest lives? What if they’re not actually the targets?
When the desire for meaning or legacy disintegrates into unhealthy places, it becomes misguided and ends up looking more like lust for success and notoriety. Success as a bi-product of hard work and excellence is deserving, but the desire for success as an end goal, in and of itself, will have us all wrapped up in knots, working too hard, striving, pushing and hustling. All so that there is something to show for our time here on Earth. To demonstrate we were meaningful. To prove we mattered.
My youthful ambitions have been shored up with an understanding that there are more significant monuments to leave behind—things that don’t get framed and hung on a wall. Things that don’t get displayed on a mantle or in a trophy cabinet. Things that don’t make the New York Times best seller list.
Last week, I had the immeasurable honour of being with my grandmother as she left this earth. It’s had me really thinking about the measure of a life: how do we measure our meaning? I think my Nan may have been on to something.
My Nan was born in a small, rural community in 1922, the second youngest of twelve siblings. She began and finished her grade 8 education in the same one-room school-house that her father and grandfather had also attended and that her own children would eventually attend. She didn’t leave her small community. She didn’t attend university. She didn’t invent anything. She didn’t have letters and accreditations after her name. She didn’t have a large bank account. She was not famous beyond her family and friends. She didn’t leave an anthology of work—at least not one that was visible.
But, my relatively unknown grandmother left a notable legacy for those of us who were blessed to have her in our lives. She endowed us with invaluable gifts.
Nan gave us the gift of family.
I didn’t realize how extraordinary it was to have strong family connection until I was an adult. I simply thought all families were like mine. My Nan established rhythms for gathering that forged strong, enduring ties. We have gathered regularly our whole lives for Boxing Day, Easter, Mother’s Day, family birthdays, Thanksgiving, summers at the camp, and more.
It’s always a loud crowd, all talking simultaneously, laughing uproariously, gorging on delicious food and loving one another well. And this many years later, we still gather. We have logged so much time together. We really know and love and like one another. And I credit my Nan for this.
Nan gave us the gift of safety.
Growing up, she was woven through the fabric of our lives. She was not a distant relation, but almost a pseudo-parent; a safe person.
I have a vivid early memory of Nan arriving on our doorstep in another province, unannounced. My mom was pregnant with my youngest sister and so ill she couldn’t get out of bed. Five-year-old Ellen was pouring bowls of dry Cheerios for her two younger siblings when suddenly, the door opened and in walked my Nan. She had a feeling we needed her, so she showed up. I remember the incredible relief and safety of her presence.
As we got older, all of the grandchildren, individually, spent large amounts of time with our Nan—suppers together, short visits over cups of tea, naps on her couch and even weekend sleepovers. Whether planned ahead or a spontaneous stop-in, she was overjoyed to see us. Being with her felt like exhaling. We never felt like an interruption or a bother. We knew we’d be welcomed into her safe harbour.
Nan gave us the gift of time.
One of Nan’s greatest gifts was her time. In a world that is rushed and busy, she would make a pot of tea. In the frenzy of life, she’d invite you to sit at the table to talk or play games. She could chat light-heartedly or listen while you poured out your sorry, confused heart. She had time.
My brother says that Nan could always engage us where we were, whether with wisdom and comfort or just by being together. She was aware of everything going on in the world and could converse for hours about history, current news, how things might play out in the future and her memories of technologies as they had unfolded during her lifetime. She always had time and made us feel like the most important people in the world.
She gave us the gift of a spiritual heritage.
Whether by sharing her devotional readings with us or that we simply observed her as she lived a life of faith and resiliency, even during very difficult things, she modelled a life of trusting God.
She invested greatly in the spiritual formation of her grandkids, teaching us scripture and giving us a road map for our Bibles (that still serves me today) through what she called “sword drills.” At the end of each sword drill week, she’d create a “fishpond” to reward those of us who had committed our memory verses to heart. We’d pull a string to find money attached at the other end. It was a total bribe..and it totally worked!
Nan gave us the gift of memories.
We had our Nan a long time—far longer than most—and as a result, we are rich with memories. There are certain smells that will forever remind me of Nan. The wild roses in her yard, the smell of geraniums in her porch, fresh bread, and the wood smoke from her old kitchen stove or the pot-belly stove down at the cottage that we called “the camp.”
The kettle boiled and cups of tea were poured. I drank tea with milk and sugar long after I’d stopped taking sugar in my tea. It was how she’d always served it, so it tasted like Nan’s house. And there was always something sweet to accompany your tea. Homemade bread and rolls with strawberry jam tasted like Nan’s house. So did Apple Crisp and crushed up potato chips on casseroles.
Down at the camp, she provided her grandkids with old dishes to use in our forest play house. I’m not sure what you used, but we had china tea cups and plates for our mud pies! Most of us remember clearly the sound of her two-fingered whistle through the woods, indicating that supper was ready.
When she still had her eyesight, she knitted fourteen pairs of mittens every winter to keep her grandkids warm. She hid Easter eggs so well for our hunt each year that we would still be finding them six months later.
And finally, we will always remember her standing in her front living room window to wave good-bye as we drove away. Every single time.
These are all such simple things, and yet, they are what I remember. They are what feels meaningful.
Let’s re-think what it means to matter. While my desire is to live to my full potential and to walk courageously the path that God has for me, I don’t want to be tricked or distracted into pursuing the lesser things that seem like the bigger things.
Maya Angelou said “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This quote gives me pause, as they say, because I haven’t always done this well. My personality leans hard in the direction of rushy efficiency, over-achievement, speed and accuracy. This thought regularly reminds me to slow down.
If, at the end of my days, no one remembers anything I said and there is nothing to show for my efforts, but my people rise and call me blessed—thankful that I taught them the value of family, thankful that I made them feel safe, thankful that I had time for them, thankful that I introduced them to my friend, Jesus, thankful for rich, loving memories—that will be enough. I will be well satisfied.
However, if they also want to award me a trophy for it, I won’t say no. I’ll graciously accept, thanking God and my manager. I’m still me, after all…