I had remarried a couple of years before and was busy at home trying to establish a new consulting business. We had three teenagers at home and with all the distractions and noise, it was often hard to concentrate on my work.
My frustration was showing up in ways that I was barely aware of. One day my wife said to me very calmly, “Neill, it’s bothering the kids how you are snapping at them. If you don’t do something about it, you will end up as a lonely, grouchy old man.”
The truth of that simple statement hit me like a ton of bricks. It wasn’t that I could end up as a lonely old man. That could happen anyway. What hit me was the thought that my family would remember me as a grouch. I could not allow that to be my emotional legacy. The internal shift was instantaneous.
It is often easy to see in others what emotional legacy they are leaving…
He always has a chip on his shoulder. She is always cheerful. He is always worried. She knows the sky is falling. He sees the humour in everything. She loves people and can always forgive. He is the eternal victim…
We all see such people and many more with particular emotional characteristics, some good and some not so good, but how well do they see themselves?
It may “take all types of people to make a world”, but what kind of world do you want? It seems to me that we’re all in this together, and because we are, it matters what effect we individually have on other people. Do we add to their happiness? Has the legacy of our emotional lifestyle made some small positive contribution to human happiness?
I contend that it doesn’t matter how much money you make or how much stuff you accumulate, if your style of life is emotionally negative, you cannot add to the happiness of others. Having said that, I must stress that as human beings we have both negative and positive qualities. What counts is the balance of positive to negative.
My grandmother, as a widow, raised nine children during the great depression. Quite an accomplishment! But unless I stop to think about it, I remember her simply as a depressing worrier. On reflection, one of my uncles achieved great things, but I remember him as mean and judgmental. Another relative failed many times, but what I remember of him was his optimistic and inspiring nature.
I invite you to reflect for a moment on relatives and other people you have known who are now gone. What comes to mind first? Was it their physical accomplishments or was it their emotional legacy?
Each of us can contribute to making the world a better place by giving more space in our lives to reflecting on our own emotional legacy. As I found out years ago, becoming aware of an imbalance can be quite startling.
Here is a little self-reflective exercise to do periodically. Write down your epitaph, paying attention to your emotional legacy, as it would be if you left this plane right now. Is it closer to:
“Here lies__________, who shed light on dark souls.”
“Here lies__________ in his natural state, cold.”
Now rewrite your epitaph to reflect your emotional legacy as you would like it to be. Make it happen.
Dr. Neill Neill is a registered psychologist in Qualicum Beach. He helps capable people who feel stuck… trauma, relationships, addictions.