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Spirituality Essay:

Legacies    ( March 2010 )

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When we die, we don't quite disappear from earth. The life we've led and the influences we've had on others will continue on into theirs; and whatever we've managed to accumulate, materially, will stay on as well. What will you be leaving behind? ... what would you like it to be? How, from all your years here, and all you've produced - in wisdom, wealth, and everything else - will you be benefiting those, especially your loved ones, as they go forward?

As we advance through middle age, most of us develop "generativity," the vital concern for the world's future, recognized and popularized by psychologist Erik Erikson. Expanding out from the natural concern we feel for our children's well-being and future, we grow to wanting the world they'll live in to flourish as well. Contributions to worthy causes rise, volunteering increases, becoming members of religious and other world-betterment organizations more likely happens. Values like, "Leave the world a better place for your being here," that may have gotten short shrift when we were younger become more underlying imperatives in our lives. Grateful we can be for that spiritual health that leads us into this more expansive and life- giving direction. So many, unfortunately, calcify and contract as they age, unable to grow out of self-centeredness, fear, addictions, and other negative behaviors.

Generativity - a more evolved dimension of `service to the world' (our UU third "Quality of a Spiritual Life") is something we can proactively cultivate.

Thinking about how we'd like to leave the world a better place for our time here - how we'd like our lives to help all those who follow us - how we'd like to be remembered! - is time well spent. It can help us assess and perhaps reorient our values and priorities; it might gently nudge the decisions we make and the ways we use our time in our day-to-day activities; and it can open us to looking at the whole of our life, how we've grown, what we've accomplished, what we still want to accomplish.

What do you want to leave behind? Each of us will approach this important question differently.

But I think having a rich spiritual life (following the Three UU Qualities of a Spiritual Life: a life of dynamic growth, increasing love, and service) will lead, naturally, to the decisions and actions that feel best. Greater refinement inevitably comes when quietude - nature, meditation, and/or prayer - is the centerpiece of our spiritual practice, for it allows us to open to that spirit that always guides us to what is best.

At a practical level, communication is key. Make sure all your wishes are known. That includes, of course, a good will delineating where you want your assets to go (hopefully including a reasonable portion going into world-betterment).

But also make sure all your thoughts and feelings you'd like your loved ones to know are expressed: what wisdom that you've learned would you like for them to have; what mistakes and difficulties would you like to cover so their future will be less encumbered (use what would you have liked to hear from your parents before their parting as a guide); what your feelings towards them are that you want them to always carry (especially, and just in case, death comes suddenly, unexpectedly).

Most of us want to be here as long as possible. Thinking about and planning what we want to leave behind might become the best way "who we are" will be here as long as possible.

This is one in a series of essays on spirituality by Rick Childs, lay leader of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Mendocino Coast. You may want to:
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