My family lore includes a story about how my great grandfather was approached by Henry Ford for a business loan. Ford needed $2000. In exchange for the loan, my great grandfather would have become Ford’s business partner.
In considering the deal, my great grandfather devised a test. He would sit on the front porch all day and see just how many of these newfangled contraptions passed by. As it turned out, he saw several horse and buggies, but not a single motor vehicle. My great grandfather concluded they’d be nothing but a fad, and decided not to waste his money.
Whenever this story is told in my family, it’s with a bit of wistfulness. What could have been. And this is literally all I know about my great-grandfather: his legacy, as far as I am concerned, is a bit of an Oops. (Never mind how that decision might have changed EVERYTHING.)
I was thinking about this story because I heard a quote the other day that we are, as individuals, only remembered for about three generations. That means that by the time you have great grandchildren, you’ll likely be dead and forgotten. By the time you have great great grandchildren, you’ll be just a name on the family tree.
It’s a rather depressing thought. We each, as individuals, want to believe in our lives as being of paramount importance. We strive to create a legacy for our children and their children—whether it’s money, power, position, or esteem. But there can be only so many Neil Armstrongs and Oprah Winfreys and William Shakespeares and Franklin D. Roosevelts. Most of us are basically average. And our legacies will be forgotten.
Of course our lives are of great importance to us and our loved ones, right now. But each of our lives is, relative to the expanse of time, just a blip. Even three generations is a blip. Three millennia, for that matter. So if our lives and our legacies will be almost instantly forgotten, what’s the point?
I struggled with this last year. I was working on a memoir that I hoped would help others. It was the first passion project I ever worked on, professionally speaking, and the first time I thought that I just might have something I would be remembered for. But I never got a foothold with it. I felt wounded that I had poured my heart and soul into something that no one wanted, which led to some good lessons but a lot of existential suffering, too. I asked myself often, “What’s the point.”
Now that I have a bit of distance from that period, I’m beginning to think about things differently. First of all, thank God that book didn’t go…I realize now it needs more work. And second, I’m starting to think that the point of this whole experiment might not be to create a legacy, but to use our influence.
Influence is something each of us has already, which has the potential to effect the entire collective.
Consider someone who walks around smiling all the time, rain or shine. How many people will be touched by that smile? How many people will pass it on? What impact might that have in spreading joy?
And how many people observe your yoga practice and think, “I wonder if I could do that?” How many people are inspired to eat less meat, or to become vegan, because they see the positive impacts it has had on your life?
And what is the ripple effect of these practices? That is influence. And while you might not be remembered for the positive actions you take—or receive any earthly “credit”—does it really matter? That stuff will all be forgotten anyway.
Would you rather be remembered for being able to wrap your leg behind your head while standing on your hands, or know in your heart that you’ve been part of creating a collective shift in the consciousness of the planet?