An old African proverb states, "When an old man dies, a library is burned to the ground."
Will you pause for a moment with me and let that image sink in?
Imagine what that might look like. Your local library, filled with thousands of pages of knowledge, experience and insight - burning to the ground. The flames curling the pages, the plastic book covers bubbling and bursting under the heat, the smoke billowing through the aisles of what once was a treasure trove of discovery.
Now, imagine that library was filled solely with your life history. A page for every day, a book for every year, an aisle for every decade. Those books, your legacy - gone in flames.
It's a sobering image.
This image truly sank in for me when I first heard the song "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story," from the popular musical Hamilton: An American Musical. In the song, the historic characters of Alexander Hamilton and his wife Eliza grapple with the question we all must face: who will tell my story when I'm gone?
"When you're gone, who remembers your name" the song goes. "Who keeps your flame? Who tells your story?"
For the most part, we tend to rely on others to tell those stories. Funerals are filled with eulogies, memories and remembrances from relatives, friends and other loved ones. It makes sense. We certainly can't stand at the podium or at the graveside if we're the reason we've all gathered as dearly beloved!
In Hamilton's case, his wife largely shouldered the task of preserving his legacy after his early and unexpected death in a gun duel with Vice President Aaron Burr.
"I stop wasting time on tears," Eliza's character sings in Hamilton: An American Musical. "I live another fifty years. It's not enough. I interview every soldier who fought by your side...I try to make sense of your thousands of pages of writings..I rely on Angelica. While she's alive we tell your story...And when my time is up, have I done enough? Will they tell your story?"
The world has heard Hamilton's story. The musical's creator Lin-Manuel Miranda ensured that when he debuted the musical in 2015.
But, not everyone can rely on the emergence of a contemporary musical to tell their story. Frankly, not everyone can even rely on family members to propel their legacy forward after they pass. Can you imagine every relative you've ever met standing up at your funeral trying to articulate your legacy?
It's a massive game of telephone just waiting to happen y'all!
In just a generation or two, it's easy for our stories to fade into history's mysteries or at least get rewritten around few Thanksgiving dinners (yikes!)
And if I'm being brutally honest, we shouldn't be relying on others to do a task that is first and foremost, ours.
WE should be the ones telling our stories, and we should be telling them now.
I think we all understand this, for the most part. At some point in our lives, the legacies of our ancestors and our own story will become vitally important to us. I've seen this in my own life as elderly relatives suddenly take up the task of writing down their own life histories, middle aged friends take a keen interest in organizing their family photos and even some younger peers suddenly lean into a growing curiosity about their ancestors.
Yes, at some point - we will be concerned for the welfare of our own legacies. But, may I peel back the curtain on another sobering truth for a moment?
We all know a Hamilton; someone who left this life too soon. Death strikes a match to light aflame our legacies. Unbeknownst to us, Death is sitting right outside our library doors waiting for his cue. And really, does any of us truly know when we reach the final page in the final book of our proverbial library?
We don't. Which is exactly why we shouldn't wait. We should be fireproofing our legacy everyday.
No library will look the same. Some will be filled with Facebook posts, blog entries, handwritten journals, photo diaries, home videos, family heirlooms, maybe even a Roots Story Studio documentary.
However we tell that story, it needs to be done. If I'm being honest with myself, I don't want to leave it up to my kids, my aunts and uncles, my friends, my grandparents, parents or even my spouse. They all could do a marvelous job, I'm sure. But, there's no one who can tell my story quite like I can. It's a responsibility I want to take on and should take on.
Looking back at the song from Hamilton, I can give you the answers to at least two of the questions.
Who lives? We all do.
Who dies? We all do.
But, who tells our story is a question we must answer ourselves. I hope you'll answer that question for yourself today.