When my son was two, we were living on a barrier island in North Carolina, having just moved from Las Vegas. My husband and I were figuring out what this new life would look like personally and professionally. While many of our peers were already well into home ownership, 401k’s, annual vacations and such, we were increasingly aware of our lack of all of the above. Even though we were happy, we kept questioning whether or not we should be happy. Neither my husband nor I had a career we were passionate about. But we were paying our bills and able to see the ocean from our little cottage that we rented for $400 a month. Our son had everything he needed and then some. Yet persistent and nagging questions continued: Am I doing enough? Am I building a legacy that will continue beyond my life? I looked at friends who seemed to be so much more successful. Ours was a simple life. We didn’t have much. We didn’t need much. We didn’t want much. But was that right, or good, or the way it was supposed to be? Were we being selfish, or poor stewards of talents we had? I honestly didn’t know.
One afternoon I was walking on the beach in kind of a prayerful way. For me that means I’m having a conversation in my head and I’m hoping that God is listening. I was saying this mantra, “What should I be doing?” In other words, is my life going to matter beyond our little family of three? Again, in looking back I believe the source of my anxiety was more about the comparison to others than my own sense of satisfaction. After a quarter of a mile or so into my walk, my thoughts were suddenly and abruptly interrupted with questions posed to me: “If you raise your son to feel loved and to love, will that be enough for you? If no one will ever know the depth of how you’ve loved and sacrificed for him, will you do it anyway?” I have had a few experiences where I felt moved to my knees because of being overcome by emotion, and this was one of those times because I knew without a doubt that the answer was “yes”. For me, importance and legacy have never been about self. I didn’t want to be famous or successful. I wanted to make a difference. I didn’t want to be rich. I wanted to be kind and generous. And in this little boy of mine, I had seen from the moment I laid eyes on him my greatest opportunity to give. In the two years that followed his birth, I had made choices and gave up things to make more time to be with him. I didn’t need to spend every waking moment with him. I wasn’t interested in entertaining him. But I wanted to be there for him. I wanted him to feel safe and loved and cared for. There would be time for home ownership, 401k’s, and careers.
At the time, I thought God was giving me a dose of humility by saying “It’s not always about you!” But I now see the exchange differently. My lesson that day was about a shift in thinking from how the world measures success to what I believe God cares about. It’s not so much about what I was doing in life, but how I was doing life. I had a pastor who talked about form and function. He would say that function is what we are trying to accomplish, and form is how we will accomplish it. It is natural to look for one’s worth in the eyes of another. And there is value in seeing how you are perceived. But no one can give you a lasting sense of self-worth. What we tend to compare, because we are able to compare it, is the form. What does a successful person/career/appearance/parent/marriage look like? But the reality is, it’s function we should be paying attention to. Function is about quality of one’s character; his or her integrity. You can be an honorable attorney or you can be an asshole social worker. My initial question about legacy wasn’t “How am I doing?” but rather “How am I looking to the rest of the world?” And in a leveling response, I think what God said was, “Wrong question.” What I saw when I looked at my son was not what I wanted to do, but who I wanted to be. God wasn’t trying to humble me, but rather encourage me.
There are many ways success is measured – financial, network of friends, familial relationships, causes we support. But none of these things determine who we really are. When I question what I am doing or whether I am far enough along, when I worry about failing or not amounting to much, when I feel powerless over the life I’m living, when I wonder what is the point, I remember the question posed to me on that day almost 19 years ago: “If no one notices what you have done, would you do it any differently?” The moments I am most proud of in my life are the moments of sacrifice or acts of love that went unnoticed because I was more concerned for the recipient of that act than what it meant for me. That’s the kind of person I want to be, and that’s the legacy I want to leave behind. I want people to remember not so much what I did, but rather who I was.