by Rob Stam
There was a solider in the Civil War named William McWilliams. He fought in various battles for the Union Army, including the Battle of Gettysburg with General Custer. He took a musket ball to his leg at the battle of Boonville, leaving him unable to fight any longer. He died in near poverty and is buried in a small grave in Hamilton, Michigan.
He was my great-great-great-grandfather; and until last year I didn’t even know his name. The few sentences above contain almost everything I know about him.
His story isn’t that unique, and there are countless more that would make for a better Hollywood movie. Yet, here I am telling it. And when my son did his 8th grade history report on Gettysburg, he was able to bring his “Sons of the Union Army” certificate with him as a result of being William’s descendant.
I wonder if Grandpa McWilliams thought about his legacy back at Gettysburg. Based on his inconspicuous grave, and the fact that none of us knew anything about him until my dad did some digging, he apparently had no real legacy. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time anyone in the past 150 years has even mentioned him.
But a legacy it is—a man who volunteered to fight and was wounded for a cause so much greater than himself.
I remember years ago walking with my son (only four years old at the time) in downtown Holland when he inquired about those iconic footprints in the sidewalk at 8th and Central. They are placed there in honor of a man who has a well-known legacy in this community. Years after his passing, Ed Prince is still a celebrity here. He too cared about things so much greater than himself. Much of what we enjoy in this community began with his vision and tireless efforts.
But what does any of this have to do with you or me?
I never met Mr. Prince and I know very little about him, just like I know very little of my great—great-great-grandpa. But what I do know is that the opportunities we have in this community and nation are because of what others, many of whose names I don’t know, valued and defended long before we existed.
And now, it’s our turn.
Let’s be honest, we all have those moments when we ponder, “what’s the point?” Most of us aren’t fighting a war or building a corporation that employs thousands of people. So what, exactly then, is the point? Work, meetings, events, etc.—is there a legacy in any of this?
Lest I leave you depressed, I offer some simple advice.
We live in a world consumed with status. We are constantly comparing ourselves to everyone else, and we spend most of our energy working to improve our status quo. But legacy is about the opposite. It’s not about you or me as individuals. Legacy is about what we value.
When it’s all said in done, status means nothing. Eventually we all have the same status: covered in six feet of dirt. But what we value is what lives on.
So as you go about your day, ask yourself: “What do I want to remain when I’m gone?” Hopefully more than just what’s left of your retirement account.
Then, change your status quo accordingly. Become obsessed with a legacy that is about something bigger than yourself, something that isn’t even dependent on your name being remembered, but instead about what you value being sustained in the years ahead.
The decisions you make today may affect the decisions of someone five generations from now—like what to do for an 8th grade history project or what blog to write.
Think about the magnitude of those decisions today.
No one—even a broke, wounded soldier forgotten for 150 years—is too insignificant for that.