Elena Stidham is a senior journalism and telecommunications major and writes “Loud and Clear” for The Daily News. Her views do not necessarily agree with those of the newspaper.
"Legacy. What is a legacy? It's planting seeds in a garden you'll never get to see."
I remember these words from “Hamilton: An American Musical.”
I remember the seeds in the garden — the legacy — that I’m planting.
I remember thinking how I’ll never get to see these things, too.
As far back as I can remember, I have lived in someone else's shadow. That “someone” always varied.
My Mom. My Nana. My Dad. Celebrities. Authors. Mentors. Upperclassmen. My best friend. Every day, I wanted to live a life where I could be half the person everybody before me was.
This idea came crashing down on me a couple weeks ago.
I’m the president of a club that I love, and while I was preparing materials for the next meeting, I was suddenly struck with a question that electrified me with fear:
"What am I doing?"
What will I leave behind in this club that I love and care about so much? Will I be remembered as a good president? Will my events still carry on when I'm gone?
What is my legacy?
I’m so scared to let my position go. I’m so terrified of what will happen when I’m gone.
It has nothing to do with anybody else. In fact, my members are more than capable of handling the tasks when I leave. It has everything to do with how much I love this club. I feel like a parent, and I’m scared to let go of what is basically my university equivalent of my child.
How will my baby grow? What if I didn’t do anything right?
Then it got worse — the terrible thoughts in my mind started to plummet faster than a freefall.
What if I were to die right now? Or tomorrow? What would happen? Who would I have impacted around me? Would they care? Would they cry? Would they miss me?
What am I doing? What am I working for? What am I leaving behind? What if I'm not doing enough? What if I didn't work hard enough? What if everybody forgets about me? What if I leave nothing behind? What if my legacy isn't good?
This sent me into a literal panic. All my life I've been wanting to make everybody proud. I’ve wanted to be half of somebody else.
I’ve wanted to leave behind a good legacy.
The idea of me failing this impossible standard I set up for myself absolutely petrified me. In a way, it still kind of does. I’m so harsh on myself at the very idea of failure that I never even realized how it affects everything I’m doing.
This realization came the next day when I remembered the time I had a friend over, and he got to see something I never saw before: just how much I neglect myself.
He got to see the ins and outs of my private day-to-day life from class to cooking all the way down to a panic attack at my desk. When evening came, he finally took a deep breath and told me what my problem was: I neglect myself too much.
He said I'm an amazing friend that goes so out of my way for other people, and I love so much, but I fail to turn that back onto myself. I fail to see my own potential. I fail to let myself be okay with my mistakes. The energy I channel into my work and personal life isn't channeled into myself, and I don't think I realized that until this exact crisis.
I've been so scared to ask for any kind of help. I've been terrified of making mistakes. I have been absolutely devastated at the idea of disappointing everyone and leaving nothing behind.
What I needed to learn, I think, was how to start putting myself back together. I have to love myself before I can love other people, and it’s this love for other people where my legacy will begin to grow. I needed to start that. I’m still learning that.
This past summer, I went to a memorial for a woman I knew through the friend I just mentioned. She had done incredible work for her company and for her community, and I had never seen so many people show up to honor a person’s memory.
The thing is, it could have been very easy for the memorial to talk about all the incredible work she had done in her life. The work she did in her life left behind something spectacular, but the memorial did not focus on that. No, it focused on her with other people. It focused on how she impacted each individual life and the person she was to anybody and everybody. It focused on her ripple effect.
That was her legacy.
But can I truly leave behind a legacy like that?
During all of this, I also reached out to friends I kept in contact with from study abroad. My then-roommate had only repeated everything I had heard at the memorial: legacy lies with the people you meet.
The final relief came from my mother. Shortly after my initial panic, I explained to her my situation and my thought process. She told me I already left behind a legacy, if not with my friends, then with two “sweet little girls in Japan who will probably never forget” me.
I doubted, for just a moment, that my host sisters would remember me this way, but my mother helped me erase those doubts with a simple point: We all remember songs from when we were 6 years old. If something made us happy as children, we never forget it. If what made us happy as a child was another person, we never forget them either. That’s a legacy.
I'm leaving behind something in the lives I meet, and I try my best to make it good. I leave behind a ripple effect. That will be my legacy, too.
I'll be honest, this wasn't some grand switch and I suddenly feel all better. I used to wake up every morning and work myself into an early grave to plant myself into a legacy. I used to over-stress and find myself nit-picking the worst things about myself and my actions, convinced I would disappoint the rest of the world if I didn't hold myself up to my most perfect standard.
I still do this sometimes, but this is a process I'm going to have to convince myself of. This is what I need to use to be kinder to myself. This is the energy I will put into myself, and the energy in my work will accelerate tenfold.
My legacy won't come from being president of a university club. My legacy won't come from how many people read any of my writings. My legacy won't come from making the whole world happy.
My legacy comes from existing.
My legacy comes from every life I touch and from every soul I meet. My legacy comes on its own, growing up every day. My legacy comes just from me doing my best, from being my best to others and from being my best to myself. I just have to plant the seeds to the garden of my legacy and let it grow on its own. I want to do good. I have to do good, but I need to remember I can’t rush an outcome like this. It will take time, and in the meantime, I just have to do the best I can.
Perhaps, in the garden of my legacy, I may see some cherry blossoms someday.
Contact Elena Stidham with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @elenastidham.