Robert Keayne should be remembered fondly. He was a pioneer, a tailor, a chronicler of sermons, a Selectman in seventeenth-century Boston, a member and Speaker of the Massachusetts General Court, and a philanthropist. In his will, he left a donation that helped establish Boston’s first town house.
In 1639, however, he had been called before the court and fined for charging too much for his goods. At the time, he confessed his sins and professed his contrition. But before he died in 1656, he composed a 50-odd page last will and testament as an extended rationalization and justification of his earlier behavior. He was right, and he’d go to his grave publicly professing his innocence.
We might remember Keayne as a philanthropist and one of the rocks upon which Massachusetts Bay Colony and the United States was built. Instead, we remember him more as a whiner, a self-proclaimed victim, and a person who would not accept that he offended the people who lived around him. His fate was sealed when the historian Bernard Bailyn published Keayne’s will as The Apologia of Robert Keayne.
How do you want to be remembered?
“I’ve got nothing to say. I’m nobody.”
Emily Dickinson got a lot of mileage out of writing that. Was she really no one? If you believe that about yourself, perhaps you could use some Buddhism or some therapy. You are too close to yourself to know that you don’t count. Your friends wouldn’t be your friends if they agreed. Your colleagues don’t agree. Your kids better not! You are a unique someone. No one else has your experiences or your responses to them.
“I’ve got nothing to say. Who’d want to hear what I have to say, anyway?” You’d be surprised how many people DO want to hear it. Don’t worry about the people who aren’t interested. Think about the people who are.
“I’ve got nothing to say. Suppose I leave something out or make a mistake that embarrasses me.” You aren’t in academia, are you? You know your subject better than anyone else. So what if you don’t know everything? No one does. You have your own perspectives, your own memories, and your own insights. That’s what people are interested in. Don’t let how you think others will react keep your voice silent.
“I’ve got nothing to say.” Only If you keep quiet will you be you right.
Rick had watched his octogenarian father slowly lose interest in everything. Once vital and alive, Jack was aging too fast. The only time that changed was when Jack reminisced about his childhood in Brooklyn. He snatched back a part of his lost vitality whenever he relived his past. Rick had an epiphany. He said to his father, “Dad, you tell your stores, I’ll write them down, and we’ll make a book.”
Jack had something to look forward to again. He became visibly younger as he waited for the book to appear. By the time the book went to the printer, Jack was impatient. “When’s my book going to be ready?” I met Jack for dinner at Home Town Buffet after the book was in his hands. He looked and acted nothing like the man Rick had first described.
Heirloom Stories from the Harnessmaker’s Son is more than a good book. It gave Jack something special, his joie de vivre. Jack lived seven years after his book came out, seven years that no one expected him to have. His book couldn’t restore his youth, but it could resuscitate his interests and bring his youth back to life. Stories have that power.
When he was young, my son’s often asked, “what was it like when you were growing up?” He wanted to know what it was like to be a kid before video games and In-N-Out burgers. It was a world he could experience only in his imagination. His own world began when I was 40 years into mine, by which time computers had replaced pencils, ATMs had replaced bank books, and cell phones had replaced black, rotary phones. I tried to satisfy his curiosity, but there was so much I had to gloss over.
It was the same between my parents and me. My frame of reference began when theirs was practically half over. They didn’t talk much at all about their childhood. Then my father died too young and my mother began asking me if I went to school with her brothers. Their stories now sleep silently in a New Jersey cemetery, and the world of their youth is silent.
Don’t you owe it your children and grandchildren to keep your world alive? If you don’t have children, don’t you owe it to all the people who want to learn from your experiences? Share your stories while they are still fresh. Write them down if you can. If you don’t think of yourself as a writer, make an audio of them or make a video. But do share your stories before they, too, turn to dust, like the stories in that New Jersey cemetery.
The ancient Babylonian epic traces the life of its hero, Gilgamesh. At the end of his life, after he has tried and failed to achieve immortality, Gilgamesh stands outside the city of Uruk and meditates on life. All people are here for a short amount of time, and then they are gone. Even Gilgamesh, himself the offspring of the Gods, eventually must die. Don’t look at mortal creatures to discover immortality. If you want to see something that lasts forever, look at the wall of the city. They will stand forever.
Gilgamesh was on to something. You and I are going to leave this earth one day. But what we leave behind becomes immortal. Our works live on, perhaps forever. The thing is, we have to leave something behind. It does us no good to say that we intended to build our walls but we never got around to it.
Even if we don’t leave something earth-shattering behind us, we can leave our stories. We can leave our ideas. We can leave our memories, the things we stood for or tried to accomplish, the things that give our life meaning. We can do this by putting it in writing. And who knows? We may realize, for the first time, what these things are.
That’s one reason to record your stories. Don’t worry about whether they will end up on the Times best-seller list or be featured performances on This American Life. They don’t need to be. Don’t worry about whether other people will think you have something to say. You do.