THE BLOG

Your Legacy: What do You Stand For?

16/05/2014 14:17 BST | Updated 15/07/2014 10:59 BST

Terminal illness, followed by death, often bewilders, and so it has in the case of the heroic teenager Stephen Sutton, who raised more than £3.2 million for the Teenage Cancer Trust.

But it has also clarified, at least for me, what it means to leave a legacy. True legacy is about reputation -- what we stand for -- more than it is about anything else. Too often legacy is thought of as something tangible: money, children, etc.

The truth is, however, that 'how we live' is what we pass from one generation to another, and is really all any of us have to leave, whether we have children or not, or loads of money.

I am not suggesting that offspring and money are not important. Of course, everyone wants to leave their loved ones in good shape, if they can. But I am saying that even in the tangible, there is more than meets the eye.

Admittedly, for many years, I thought the word 'legacy' was chiefly about offspring, though I certainly understood that it denoted money, gifts, heritage, and passing something to a subsequent generation. Perhaps, the latter is why lineage stayed in my mind.

This way of thinking probably started some thirty years ago, while I was at university. Early on, I expressed an interest in joining a popular sorority: not the airy-fairy kind often depicted in films; rather an organisation with charity status. Such sororities are dedicated to public service.

This was right up my alley, but my excitement fizzled when an acquaintance was accepted automatically because her mother was a member. She was the legacy that her mother had left to the sorority.

The rest of us were on our own. Tough. So I decided against putting myself forward for membership, but for years to come I associated legacy with nepotism.

Fast-forward many years later to when I decided not to have children: the subject of legacy reared its head again. However, this time, I veered on the positive, shifting my focus to making a difference in life, creating good memories.

Still, it wasn't until after I wrote my first novel, The Barrenness, that the topic called for deep questioning and serious thinking. How would I be remembered? What would I leave behind? What would I have to show for my life? Who would I bequeath my money to, if I had any? What did legacy really mean to me? What did it mean to people who didn't have children?

I put the question to a few women who didn't have children and received consistently worrying answers. For instance, a top news anchor in the US insinuated jokingly that she didn't have a legacy, even though she is a household name in some parts; she planned to leave her money to her dogs. Another friend, though she had a very successful career, said she didn't feel like she had anything to show for her life either.

Again, it came down to what they thought people would remember the most, and to them, that was more about the general belief that legacy is intrinsically linked to lineage. Most recently, BBC Radio personality Jo Good, who also doesn't have children, put the question to me on air.

I shared my belief that legacy is about leaving good memories, but also about the power of those memories and their influence on those left behind. Thus, I answered that we all leave something behind, even if it is only memories, and if we are intentional in that process, those memories should influence and inspire.

Thus, you have to do the best you can; put your best foot forward. If you happen to be Oprah Winfrey, those memories, along with any gifts she might bequeath, will have a massive impact on the world. If you are Sonja Lewis, those memories might have a lesser impact. In either case, however, quality matters as much as quantity.

The point is that some memories are full of integrity and fundamental values, while others may have to do with achievements and commitment. And of course, some memories live on in children, and so on.

Recently, a cousin who is about five years younger than me confessed that she had really looked up to me when we were growing up. Somehow I'd had a great influence on her without being aware of it, and today she still notices what I do.

Flattering but frightening: I can only hope that I'm on the right track. And after I am gone, which I sincerely hope is a long time from now, I hope that these positive memories will suffice as my legacy: what I stand for.

And I do think the link between reputation and legacy is something we all have to consider, whether we have children or not.

Stephen Sutton's untimely death puts the matter into perspective. While we remember him publicly, and his family and friends remember him privately, we will all remember one thing for sure: what he stood for.

We will reminisce about his inspiration, his bravery, his wonderful words: 'Life isn't measured in time; it's measured in achievements'.

Certainly, his achievements will live on through many poignant memories of him.

So, what do you stand for?