Tons of celebrities died during 2016. So many of them died, as a matter of fact, people started to respond with black humor. There were memes, jokes and even t-shirts pointing out how many celebrities had passed away. As tends to happen, social media was on fire about it all. Over and over again, Big Media covered their accomplishments, and ways these deceased celebrities impacted our society. Observing all of this publicity, many of us quietly wondered how can we make a difference in the world, too.
As a Midlifer, our mortality is something we start thinking of more often.
Once we hit the age of forty or so, we start noticing that people around us are passing away. At first it seems kind of random, and all of these deaths seem very tragic and unexpected.
By the time we hit fifty, the number of deaths around us start increasing, and they’re beginning to result from health issues, not just freak accidents. We start feeling a sense of vulnerability, because death is hitting us closer and closer to home.
Quite suddenly, our own mortality is something we can no longer deny.
I experienced this a few months ago.
I was putting some books away on the bookshelf in my office. Like a sudden bolt of lightening, it hit me that one day I won’t be here, and someone will have to manage my things. That’s always a distant thought, isn’t it? That we’re going to be leaving our stuff behind, because one day we won’t be here? In that moment though, I actually felt the profound emptiness of that reality. I felt the absence of ME, the person I have known and been all of my life.
That one moment was both inconceivable, and terrible.
I saw, for a brief instant, the gap I will leave. For that split moment in time, I felt the loss others would feel. Not because I’m particularly special, or profoundly important, because I’m not. On a planet filled with almost seven and a half billion people, mine is just a tiny soul.
It was a very humbling, and lonely moment.
It made me pause, and look at everything around me in a new light. My books, my clothes, the photos of my loved ones I have up in my office–someday someone will have to deal with my stuff. It might be my husband, it might be my daughter, it might be someone I don’t even know, yet. But one day, someone will have to touch all of my things, and decide what to do with them.
In those quiet moments, I may be mourned.
During that necessary process, somebody is going to examine who I was as a person, and be faced with all I held dear.
I wonder what that person will think, or feel, during that time. I wonder if they will puzzle my choices, or have a hard time discarding the tangible objects that represent my time on the globe. Right now I pray for that person, and what that time will be like for him or her.
Because it’s all out of my control, you see.
I don’t know the nature, or time of my impending death–any more than you do your own. Death is the greatest mystery of all. We don’t know what happens afterward, we don’t know when it’s coming for us–we don’t know anything.
We just know it’s waiting.
The enormity of these questions about death can paralyze us, if we let them.
The mysteries of our mortality are so huge, and so eternal, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. So our response is to generally look away, and become busy with the trivia around us.
Instead of considering our life’s potential impact, we distract ourselves with minutiae. What are our favorite celebrities doing this week? Which of them sent out an embarrassing tweet? Why in the world did that horrible person just cut us off in traffic?
We choose to look at the stupid stuff, instead of the profound.
The profound, though, is where the beauty is.
Many times, when people think of the legacy they’ll leave, they want to leave something big. They dream of huge things to do, or enormous things they might create. They want to make a monumental impact, so they’ll know for sure they made a difference.
I think that’s fine, but I think it’s also a bit misguided.
We now live in an age where your thoughts and image can be beamed across the planet in seconds. You can now reach people you will never, ever meet in real life–instantly.
So–the pressure is on.
People feel they now have to participate at this level, or their life will not have merit. They want fame, they want followers, they want viral–they want electronic evidence they’ve touched people.
I find that sad, because that outlook can take away from genuine human interaction. It means you are focused on impacting strangers, instead of the people you are living and breathing beside.
Think quietly of the person who has impacted you most in your life.
Most likely, that person is a family member.
I bet they’re a parent, or a grandparent–someone very close to you, in real life.
Or maybe it’s another type of adult–like a teacher, or coach.
Perhaps it’s a friend, or mentor–someone who took the time to reach out to you in a moment of difficulty or fear.
That person isn’t famous.
They don’t have a building named after them, or thousands of followers on social media.
The person who has influenced your life the most is just a normal person.
They worked hard, they spoke to you one on one, they’ve looked you in the eyes–they are a real, probably rather ordinary human being.
Despite their ‘insignificance’ when viewed on a wider stage–that person changed your life.
In order to make the biggest difference you can in the world, you must start thinking smaller.
Stop thinking you need to make a monumental difference in the world, because you don’t.
The world is too big, and there are entirely too many needs staring you right in the face.
Your family, your neighbors, your community–look at the people within arms reach, and make your impact there.
Yes. Some of us will have buildings named after us, and leave a very powerful and public impact on the world.
Most of us though?
The majority of us will continue to get up each day, work hard in our little sliver of the universe, and come home to people who love us.
We will have friends, we will have co-workers and we will have neighbors.
That is our direct sphere of influence, Friend. That is where we need to focus most.
Social media tends to inflate our sense of power and personal impact.
Here’s why: you might have 500 ‘friends’ on your Facebook account, and that’s great.
But how many of those 500 people know about the last time you cried?
So sharing a post about people who are hungry with your 500 ‘friends’ doesn’t do anything. People are too busy posting their own stuff. They can’t stay intimately connected to the hundreds of people they relate with online, so they tune a lot of it out.
If hungry people are what upset you, go buy dinner for someone sitting in a fast-food restaurant’s parking lot. That is what does something. That is how you can leave your impact on the world.
If racism upsets you, don’t just spread a meme about ending it.
Invite someone who looks different than you out to lunch, and share an intimate conversation. That is how you can begin to create a powerful legacy.
How can we make a difference in the world? By getting our hands dirty.
Changing the world happens when you give a ride home to your child’s friend after their school’s basketball game, knowing this kid has a difficult home life. Listening to that young man, asking him for his opinion, looking him in the eye–that’s how you make an impact in the world that will matter.
Spending time with an older person who is never visited in their assisted living facility is what helps. Listening to memories, asking about a deceased spouse, adjusting their blanket in bed–that is a way you make a difference on our little planet.
Taking off your own sweater, and giving it–still warm from the heat of your body–to the person shivering in a doorway–that’s how you create a meaningful legacy for yourself.
It’s time to re-evaluate how you want to be remembered once you’re gone, Friend.
Stop thinking big.
Start thinking small.
Because you too are going to be swallowed up by the enormity, and the mystery, of our Universe.
One day, someone is going to look at the stuff you have accumulated, and mourn that you are gone.
They’ll hold your belongings, they’ll smell your scent and they’ll remember a voice that won’t ever be heard again.
It happens to every one of us, no matter how hard we fight.
So knowing that such a fate awaits us, how can we make a difference in our overwhelming world?
One beautiful person at a time…
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**Chanler Jeffers has seen many extraordinary things over her lifetime. An adventurer, survivor, overachiever and advocate of kindness in all instances, she has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Chamber of Commerce Executives (ACCE), and is a member of their Circle of Champions. She has had the good fortune to live and travel all over the world, grew up as a military dependent and was a single parent for many years. She has survived cancer, and gently shaped countless people over her years on this little planet we call home. Follow along as she shares her knowledge, her experience and her love. Oh, by the way–one more thing. She’s married to a Bass playing rock star, lucky girl.
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