Want to leave a legacy? Tell a story.
Leaving a Legacy Through Story Part 1 – Stories Convey a Culture’s Values
“The cemeteries are full of people who thought they were irreplaceable.” I remind myself this naked fact when my ego drifts into self importance. It’s humbling to realize how fast my workplace would go on without me. If I got hit by a bus, it would take a ridiculously short time for my influence to vanish entirely. Of course we all have strengths, and our friends would miss us. I know that no one can fill the place of a loved one gone. Still, it is a fact that the world will someday continue in our absence.
And here is a startling question: how many years will it take before not a soul is left who knew me well. Fifty, tops. Then what remains?
To catch my drift, try this exercise: write down the names of your eight great-grandparents. Without calling your mother. Can you? Next, how much of a portrait can you paint of their lives? What of their personalities? How did triumphs and heartbreaks shape their views? What traits did you inherit from them? What wisdom would they want to teach you?
This gives me pause. I did not even know my grandparents very well because I was the youngest on both sides and they lived in declining bodies by the time I came along. They all passed away before I reached adulthood. Oh what I would give to have known them when they were young, in their dancing shoes. And my great grandparents? I come up so empty regarding the richness of their lives. Only some faded details remain as clues.
There are a few, however, that I understand a little. What I have is because of stories.
I have come to believe that the ONLY way to convey a legacy to future generations is through story. Everyone bristles at a sermon, especially from our parents, but how many times did I ask my folks to tell about when they were young? Example always trumps advice, and in absence of having witnessed an event in the flesh, a story will do nicely. A priest reminded me of this recently when he said that “we can all preach the gospel, and sometimes even use words.” Then when someone is gone, the wisdom they gained from a lifetime of experience is conveyed one story at a time, if it is to be conveyed at all. So yeah, I guess that’s a time when words will do.
This ties into another insight I picked up in graduate school. In a class on culture, I was intrigued by the idea that one can pinpoint the values of a group through the stories they cultivate. That is true for countries, business organizations and families. It occurred to me then, and I believe even more now that organizations—even families—can be intentional about building culture through story. We can consciously curating examples of who we are and retell those stories. What happens is that the very best episodes from a group’s history ultimately become enshrined as lore. When newcomers hear these vignettes and they understand, “This is the kind of people we are. This is who we are meant to become.”
Let illustrate with a story of my own.
When my parents were getting their health business started, folks thought they had gone kooky. Remember, this was a time when you could not buy whole wheat bread in the grocery store, let alone the kind of trace mineral supplements they made. So my mom and dad had a rough time of it and they lived with their toes over the financial edge. But my mom used to tell me that every time they got discouraged, someone would write a letter saying how much the products had helped them, and they would think, “That is why we are doing this.” Those letters kept her going.
To grow the company my dad would hawk his guns to get enough money to leave on a selling trip, but not enough to get home. He would leave with the station wagon loaded to the hilt and would have to sell his way back to the family.
This image of dad driving away with one-way cash became part of our family folklore, and helped me—the youngest—see that we are people of purpose and conviction. We continue on when others snicker. We have enough faith to head out on the road without a guaranteed ticket back. And if we ever run out of cash, we have a hundred examples of how things had a way of working out. It always turned out okay, and that told us that it always would again.
After my dad passed away, I gathered these cherished memories and set out to compile my family’s stories which became a full book, Every Essential Element. I thought I would do a quick compilation and be done with it, but the stories inspired me and they seemed too important to give quick treatment. I wanted them to shine on the page the way I remember my parents beaming with life. These stories seemed too important to fade out before my child—not yet conceived—could hear them. Now this little girl who is named after my dad will understand the kind of person she is meant to be.
I knew I had done my job when I got a text from a twenty-something nephew. His dad had the most tumultuous relationship with my parents and this nephew is also a tad rebellious. He’s not a Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of kid. I adore him. He texted me to tell me that he read the book, couldn’t put it down and then said this. “I thought I had heard all the stories but I really didn’t understand until now. Reading it made me proud to be an Anderson.” That was my payday. That was when I knew our family’s values would live beyond my generation.
This has led me into a passion for memoir. In writing my book, learned a lot the hard way, got a few things right, and have been collecting best practices from others. So this blog post is the first in a series of lessons learned. I hope you will enjoy.
Look for more on my blog on parenthood and the craft of memoir at www.rhondalauritzen.com or on Twitter @rhondalauritzen.
Rhonda Lauritzen is the author of Every Essential Element, available on Amazon.com in print and Kindle format for $3.95. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007VTY1R6
Like Rain Publishing (www.likerainpublishing.com) helps families and business leaders complete their stories.