By Martha J. Hartney, Esq.I have been an estate planner for nearly a decade. The word legacy is tossed around in my profession like candy. For years, I felt confused and concerned by the word. I didn’t understand why the hair on the back of my neck would stand up every time I heard it. It felt wrong somehow, misplaced, misused, misunderstood. Legacy and inheritance are not interchangeable. Legacy is something left behind for someone else. We leave a legacy. Inheritance is something received from someone else. We get an inheritance. But both these words are meaningless without the silent word next to it.
I know, right? Death gives all of us a hitch in our giddyup. Death is so powerful a word that we don’t even want to say it, superstitious beings that we are. Death hovers like a drop shadow near the words legacy and inheritance, barely noticeable but giving them shape and form. The word death makes us feel our existential question bumping around inside. “How will I be remembered?” and “Have I lived a life that’s worthy of being remembered?” So we swerve around death like pylons on the freeway to the easier-to-navigate word legacy. The modern usage of legacy gives a too-easy answer to these monumental questions.
Unfortunately, not finding meaning to our existence also leaves us blank-faced and flat on the inside, uncertain of why we’re here and what we’re doing with “this one precious life” (The Summer Day by Mary Oliver).
Our existential questions have become more difficult to answer with every passing generation. Humanity’s diaspora since the discovery of the New World has separated us from the felt sense of togetherness, belonging, and the safety and sanctuary of family. Just look at the explosive growth of Ancestry.com and 23andMe. We are clearly a people in search of a living past to help us make sense of our present.
Something in us longs to know our people, the land we belong to, and the songs and stories of these lands. These connections to land, people, and culture have been stretched so thin that we’ve tragically reduced the word legacy to the only thing of common value in our new world—money. We’ve lost track of legacy as the enduring fragrance of the lives we have lived, for good and for ill and all that comes with — the tragedies that have befallen us, the violence we have endured, the pain we’ve inflicted, and the strength we have built as a result of our effort.
A Control Mechanism or a Gift?
Legacy is now often more of a control mechanism than a gift. Parents and grandparents use financial resources to leverage power over children to force them to live as parents want them to, behave certain ways, accept their values, or prohibit certain lifestyles. Inheritance has been used as a threat. Do this, don’t do that, or I’ll cut you out of my will. Marry someone of our faith. Get a job I approve of. Take over the family business.
Financial coercion leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and rarely achieves the intended goal — and lawyers have colluded in this weaponizing of financial influence, resulting in astoundingly bad outcomes for many families. Giving someone an inheritance contingent on preferred behaviors is a desperate effort to fix problems and traumas that happened long ago — often before we were born — and fails to get to the real material preventing the fullest expression of our lives.
Most families struggle with some form of ancestral wounding — unknown and unseen in the present moment. Without attention and healing, ancestral wounds replicate generationally, though they morph through time. They shade and color the present, if we are still, quiet, and curious enough to notice.
The real nature of legacy is what we leave behind that we have not dealt with in this life. We, and our children, carry these wounds forward — they don’t just disappear. A boy inherits a mother’s depression. A neglected girl doesn’t have a good blueprint for how to become a mother. A victim of domestic violence lashes out in a haze of alcohol-fueled rage.
When we finally recognize the gravitational pull of the past, we may feel powerless to unwind its continuing influence due to the secretive nature of family histories and social conditioning. Our social structures do not support the revelation of family events that have imprinted on our core psychology, and our culture instructs us not to look any farther than money, status, fame, and desirability as the measure of our lives.
Compounding our wounds is the loss of the positive attributes our ancestors developed as a result of their struggles — their strength, skillfulness, valor, creativity, rebelliousness, resilience, joy, togetherness, and honesty; and the practices, rituals, and beliefs that helped them make sense of things. These positive influences are just as vital to our health and need to be harvested and integrated, just like the tragic parts of our heritage. Our true inheritance is the burden and strength we carry from the past.
Tools for Repairing a Legacy
In service to helping myself and my clients, I’ve been searching for tools and practices that access, honor, and harvest history. For the curious, those who desire to understand what is influencing present time, and seek resolution for personal and ancestral traumas, as well as receive the beneficial inheritance their ancestors have achieved, beyond what a family tree can reveal, I’d like to offer three ideas. Take only what works for you and leave anything that doesn’t. Not everything is in harmony with your own worldview — and that’s okay. This is a no-judgment zone.
Depth Psychology: This subcategory of Jungian psychology takes alchemical transformation to the next level. Reaching deep into the unconscious and weaving our personal experience into a great, unbroken tapestry of life through dreamwork, archetypes, symbolism, and holism, in which the veil between self, other, nature, and spirit thins and is experienced as an imaginal whole. Depth psychology frames our lives as a personal mythos, authored by life itself in an unfolding great mystery and celebration of life itself.
Family Constellations: This modality was derived from a powerful Zulu practice brought to the west and modified by German psychotherapist Bert Hellinger. Some may find this modality strange (it is), but I have seen it work miracles for people who can’t seem to heal lifelong problems. The premise is that sometimes our inability to fix a problem is bound up in an ancestral event or pattern that was never resolved. Skilled facilitation can bring these events and patterns to the surface of consciousness where they can be honored and healed — and open up the flow of vitality and blessing in present time.
Shamanic Journeying: Shamans have been helping people reassemble lost parts of themselves and repairing unhealthy ancestral connections for millennia and in nearly every indigenous culture. Shamanism is real. I can attest. In the States, there are many practitioners who can help reclaim soul parts that ejected from the body at some traumatic moment in the past or resolve harms done by and to our ancestors that we carry remnants of. Find the best by referral, not from an internet search.
Additionally, there are a great many more modalities of lineage healing I have not listed and/or have yet to explore. But of those I have explored, these are the three that made the cut in terms of efficacy, beauty, mystery, and ease of entry. Your mileage may vary. Essential to lineage healing is an attitude of acceptance of what was. All the tragedies, violence, secrets, suffering, loss, and grief must be welcome. They must have a place in our hearts. Finding a guide who understands this basic premise, that all must be honored, is the key to getting the most out of your search for wholeness and belonging. While we make peace with the past, we may have to look at things we don’t relish seeing. But the price of not taking a look ensures that our children will continue to carry family baggage and deprives them of the rewards of our efforts.
The wise oral tradition of the indigenous peoples of the Americas says, “May the next seven generations know why we gather to pray in this way.” And so I wish that for you. May your family be blessed by your courage and effort to unlock the mysteries of your past.
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Martha Hartney is a mother, attorney, and healer/coach based in Colorado. She has been counseling families in the nature of family legacy as an estate planner for over a decade. She also guides others through the landscape of discovering personal and ancestral wounds to reveal a felt sense of wholeness and belonging in the present time. You can find her legal practice at hartneylaw.com and her coaching practice at thehartofthematter.com.
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