Thursday, October 4, 2012

Making Your Mark (or Marcia, or Kimmy....)

I recently got to see Chris Gardner (, whose autobiography The Pursuit of Happyness inspired the Will Smith blockbuster of the same name, deliver a speech.  If you ever have the opportunity to see him speak, take it!  He was inspiring, funny, witty, and entertaining.

One thing that struck me about what this brilliant and wildly successful man had to say was his message about breaking negative cycles, and how our greatest legacy is how we shape generations to come.  He spoke of growing up without a father, with a poor excuse for a stepfather in his place, a man who would threaten him, mistreat him, and constantly remind him, "I ain't your daddy."  Gardner vowed as a five-year-old child that he would not be an absent father, that he was going to be in his children's lives when he had kids, and that he would be not just a "father," but a "dad."  If you have seen the movie, read the book, or heard him speak, you know he honored that commitment.  He became homeless because of the fact that he was a father (no kids allowed at the men's shelter), yet he still provided for and took care of his son as a single dad, making sure his son was safe and fed while he went hungry and scraped by, trying to make a better life.

Gardner, of course, went on to make millions of dollars as a stockbroker, despite starting out in the business as a homeless single father with just a high school education. He was wildly successful before writing a best-selling book that parlayed into an even more successful movie. I think we'd all agree that if a mega-star like Will Smith portrays you in a movie, you've "made it" in life. In spite of all of this success, Gardner said the most important thing he has done in his life is to be there for his children, to raise them to know that they are loved and supported by their father, something he never had. He is most proud of breaking that cycle of men who weren't there to raise their children, and he spoke to the fact that many families have some negative cycle repeating itself generation after generation -- abuse, poverty, obesity, molestation, teenage pregnancy, etc.

When speaking about the impact of breaking this cycle, Gardner pointed out that the money, fame and success he's had were good to have in his lifetime, but that they don't hold a candle to the fact that he raised his children right and given them a gift -- the gift of presence and unconditional love and support -- that they can pass on to their own chidren, who can pass it on to their own, and so on.  He said that many generations from now, his legacy and mark on the world won't be what he did as a stockbroker, but it will be his offspring, who will be in a better, more well-adjusted place because the cycle of abandonment was broken.

It's an interesting concept, to think about how our influence on others can carry over across generations.  If someone raises their children well and is able to "fix" some of what was broken in the existing family dynamic, you hope those children will carry those lessons and that example forward to their own children, and so on.  You help form the next generation so that they can form the one after that, forming a new (healthier) cycle.

I had a lot of mixed feelings about this message.  On the one hand, it rings true.  Our mark on the world can only be carried forward by other people.  On the other hand, I don't think those people have to be your children.  Many religious and philosophical leaders, as well as artists and writers, died childless and still have a profound effect on the world years later (or we have a good hunch that they will, for some still living)....Jesus, Mother Theresa, Socrates, Oprah Winfrey, Anne Frank, Florence Nightengale, etc.

In discussing Gardner's point with Sheldon later, I broke down in tears when he said he agreed that having kids is your way of leaving a lasting imprint on the world.  I wondered, aloud, what kind of lasting mark someone like Brian makes on future generations, having died young without the change to mold a future generation of his own offspring.  It's something I've thought of, usually fleetingingly, because it's been such a painful thing to think about, and is so unfair that it makes me very angry for Brian that he didn't have that opportunity.  I also thought it was something I couldn't do anything about....until Sheldon responded to my lament/question.  He said, "The children we're going to have couldn't have existed if it weren't for Brian.  He will always be a part of our lives, and theirs.  We'll tell them stories about him and make sure they know the best parts about him."  I went from sobbing to smiling through my tears at those tender, wise words.

I know when we make our Mark, or our Lisa, or our Hannah, that those kids will be shaped not just by us, but by him.  We wouldn't be the people we are, and the parents we are going to be, and our children-to-be wouldn't have come about, without him.  His impact will be there for generations to come. 

I'm so lucky to have a man who not only sees that, but helps me see it; and who not only is okay with that, but encourages and is thankful for that.


  1. Sheldon is so sweet! That's a great approach

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