To live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. That’s the essence of what we need to do if we are to live fulfilling lives, according to Steven Covey. Twenty years ago, Covey helped launch a new generation of time and life management with his books The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First.
In those books he took the best of what we had learned about setting goals and managing tasks on our way to those goals, and he pointed us toward the next level. Don’t get distracted by all the details you have to take care of in life, he advised. Instead, focus first on the one life you are given to live. Concentrate on your life’s purpose, and let all the details flow from that.
To live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy – that’s how he might have answered Thomas Merton’s famous question about identity, which goes something like this: If you want to know who I really am, don’t ask me what I do for a living; ask me what I’m living for, in detail, and ask me what keeps me from living for it fully.
Remember that evening after supper when Mary was listening to Jesus and Martha was in the kitchen complaining that she had no help? Do you recall what Jesus said to her? “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing” (Luke 10:38-42). Don’t get lost in the details, he said to her and says to all of us. Stay focused on the one thing necessary for life.
People continue to speculate about what that one thing is. Whatever it is, it certainly doesn’t relieve us of the need to take care of life’s details. But if the devil is in the details, you can be sure God is there, too. If all the details of life are organized around the one necessary thing, then we will find in those details not a list of tasks that distract us from the best life has to give but a list of opportunities to receive the best life offers: abundance, peace, fulfillment, and joy.
To live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy, according to Covey, satisfies the four basic interrelated areas of need in life: physical, social, mental, and spiritual. It’s the last need, the one about leaving a legacy, that interests me now, perhaps because of something Peter wrote: “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed” (1 Pet. 1:23). I’m at the point in my life when my attention turns naturally to my legacy. (Getting a Medicare card will do that.) When the wheat and chaff of my life are finally winnowed apart, what will remain? What, if anything, will prove imperishable?
In the latest issue of my graduate school alumni magazine, two obituaries caught my eye. One was that of Jack Horner. Jack was a Phi Beta Kappa member of the class of ‘43; received All-American honors in basketball and lettered four years in baseball; earned graduate degrees from Columbia University and Ohio State, along with ten honorary degrees from colleges and universities nationwide; studied in Rome and Athens as a Fulbright Scholar; and served in higher education posts across the country until 1958, when at age 36 he became president of Hanover College, where he served for 30 more years. Twice he was named an Indiana Sagamore of the Wabash and also named a Kentucky Colonel for his service to both states, and he was on the short list to become President Reagan’s first secretary of education. His wife, three of his four children, and seven grandchildren survive him.
Next was the obituary of Jack Howell, class of ’64. “He lived in Tampa, Fla.” That’s all it said – nothing about family or friends, no mention of career or accomplishments or interests. The only other reference to him I found was in a school newspaper from his senior year, a short article that identified him as class Social Committee chairman.
Of those two lives, what remains, imperishable? When all is said and done, did Jack Horner leave a greater legacy than Jack Howell left? And what of my life, or of yours, will prove to be imperishable? You won’t read the answer in an obituary. You won’t hear it in the recitation of a long list of honors and accomplishments or in the silence of such a list’s absence.
The answer will be found in one of the most volatile and ephemeral things I can imagine, something that’s as fleeting as your breath, that fades as fast as the flower of the field. It will be found in having loved deeply from the heart. If that is our legacy, our heirs will be wealthier than we can describe. If not, we will leave nothing behind, not so much as a five-word obituary stating where we lived.
It’s not all that complicated, difficult, or expensive to leave such a legacy, really. It’s easier than most things you’ll do, and it costs almost nothing tangible. All it takes is a few minutes of time; an open ear and a little imagination; and a commitment to do it, even on a small scale. Finally – and this can be the hardest part – it takes an open heart, a heart willing to risk being vulnerable, willing to risk being hurt once in a while. And it takes the energy to sustain it over time and over the lure of life’s other enticements.
When the people who are now staying away from the church in droves – the “spiritual-but-not-religious” crowd – are surveyed, they inevitably say they’re looking for something they’re not finding in self-help books or smart-phone apps or classes at the club. They’re looking for the women – and the men – with the casseroles. They’re looking for people who show up at your door uninvited when someone gets sick or loses their job, who show up because they want to, because that’s what you do when someone is in trouble.
They’re looking for people who don’t give you a chance to say, “No, thanks. Really, we’ll be just fine.” They know you’re not fine. They’ve seen you at your best and at your worst because they’ve shared life with you week-in, week-out for years as part of the same spiritual community. Look around you in the pews on any Sunday morning. How many people do you know that well? How many opportunities are you missing to plant and nurture the imperishable seed of love?
Being loved by God is not what heals us and makes us whole. It only opens the door to our healing. Loving others “deeply from the heart” is what heals us.