Karen Ott Mayer Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mayer: Consider what you leave behind when your time here is over

At a dinner recently, someone asked me the question.

“What do you hope to leave behind when you’re gone?”

The question came after talk about children, and since I have no children, I’ve thought long and hard about that question for several reasons.

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First, I think like many people that it’s hard not to think about what someone would find in my wake if death came tomorrow.

Right now?

A half-renovated farmhouse.  Lots of kittens.  Piles of words written, some published or others stacked unpublished in boxes or on the floor.  Tomatoes in the backyard. Some money, but not enough to get excited over.  An old Honda and an even older truck.

For those of us navigating the world alone, that one question holds weight.

What will I leave behind?

In a recent friendly debate with another fair Comodian (really, is there a better reference?), he spoke about the seemingly apathetic, unmotivated population in Panola county and the apparent hopelessness of things ever getting better.  This man had volunteered time, labor and money to both the city and to passing vagrants who espoused varying stories of plight and destitution.  He would later discover the stories to be lies and his money never to be repaid.  For him, it wasn’t about the money or even the lies, it was about what felt like wasted efforts and broken trust.  This man tried to explain that the next time a person in need showed up, he would be less likely to help.  

His point?  Until those people who need help the most do something proactive to improve their situation, then nothing would ever change. He did, however, struggle with another reality.  “I was told by an army staff sergeant to always leave a place better than when you found it.”  

Down in Shelby, Mississippi another man, Rives Neblett, is holding onto a dream to leave his town and school better.  Born and raised in the Delta, Neblett recently ponied up $25,000  to build a local foundation in support of Peer Power, a student mentoring and tutoring program.  Will it work?  Detractors say no, but evidence in other Memphis schools suggest otherwise.

Knowing first hand the struggles in the Delta between black and white, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, Neblett nonetheless chooses to forge ahead with resolve.  During a conversation recently, he said something that stuck with me.  “Those in power have the ability to enact change, and have a responsibility, to help change things for the better.”

Those in power.

I was struck by the contrasting views of these two individuals:  one believes that change will most likely happen from the bottom up, the other believes those at the top have the power to spread change.

I have no idea which way works better, but my thought is it certainly can’t hurt to have either happen.  Hit the problems from both ends and meet in the middle.

In this political season filled with an endless stream of promises by people who live far away from us, I have adopted that sergeant’s philosophy because it makes sense—and it’s something I can do.  While the debates rage and the pessimists sit around and pessimitize (my word), I’m going to work on making my corner of the world a better place.

So what do I hope to leave behind?  

Quite simply, a better place.