Leaving a Lasting Impact

Thoughts on growing old and leaving a legacy

By: Allan Wallace

As I age, I have found growing deep within me a desire to leave a lasting impact on the world. I don’t want to die alone and insignificant. And, when I look back over the decades of my life, it seems the impacts that I have had either have terminated in the past or will be of diminishing significance in the few years after my death. I have written no great work of literature, created no great work of art, built no great monument or empire, and regrettably, I leave no DNA swimming around in the gene pool.

The lack of a DNA legacy is more common than you think:  childless couples, those who’s child/children have passed away due to accident, illness or injury before procreating, and those who choose not to bring children into what they believe to be a messed-up world. However, I would argue that DNA has less of an impact on society than does Parenting. The genes that made ME are still in the gene pool, even though I am an “only child” and without my exact combination.

There is far more to a legacy than DNA

Elmer is the name of an elderly man I got to know when I was in my 20s. He had married young, but his wife passed away before they had children, and he never remarried. He was estranged from his only sibling and after their parents died, never had contact with him again. He was a primary and middle school teacher his whole working life after college, and even in his late 80s with palsy and limited to a wheelchair, he was still tutoring UT students who were struggling with freshman English.

After 65 years of students, his lasting impact on those students’ lives are a foregone conclusion, but we will never know the details because few Teachers ever get a “Mr. Holland’s Opus” moment. And after the 35 years since his death (he was 93), I may be one of the few people still alive who remembers him as a friend. And yet, his impact lives on in his hundreds, if not thousands of students and the people they influenced. Do you have a grammar school or junior high school teacher you remember fondly? I have several.

Someone told me once that when something is posted to the internet, it never dies. And, I believe that. But so many things are posted daily that one little drop could easily get lost in the deluge. But fora like Blogs and Social Media where people today share their lives and try to leave a lasting impact are only about 15 or 20 years old and may be gone in another 15 or 20 years. Or they may evolve into something else and dump the legacy material into the ocean of the internet.

In praise of smaller impacts

Real lasting impacts only actually happen for a very small percentage of the humans that ever live, and too many of them leave negative impacts. Sadly, society tends to remember the infamous more often than the fame worthy.

The people who do the most good in the world are the community leaders, teachers, parents, charity workers, volunteers, and mentors like those in Big Brothers, Big Sisters. And there are also those who simply have a positive outlook on life and a willingness to help. They make the world a better place through the common, every-day impacts each life has on others:

  • Giving guidance in times of crisis
  • Giving encouragement when things look bleak
  • Keeping a positive, life-affirming attitude in the face of all that life throws at us
  • Being an engaged member of a family (by blood or chosen)
  • Being a real friend
  • Helping someone you meet who is in need
  • Consoling someone after a loss
  • Participating in something inspirational like singing in a choir, or
  • Simply giving someone a smile when they do not have one

Most of these kinds of opportunities are short-term, or in the moment and at a point of need. But they tend to be contagious, people tend to pay it forward without even thinking about it. And they tend to be motivational, people tend to be inspired to pitch in as well.

Any of us can do the smallest of these things to leave the world a better place in our wake. And, that is without even considering the secondary and ternary effects. When you make one person’s life a little better, they may positively affect the lives of others, and it can grow exponentially as they affect still more lives. This ripple effect could easily reach far and wide with no one being aware of the source. And it begins with the decision to be positive or help this one person that is in front of me right now.

I was positively impacted by many people in my life and I can pay that forward adding my legacy to theirs.  I have decided to do what I can, as I can, and not worry about if they will remember my name after I am gone.

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