07/06/2010 10:29 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Context: Shaping our Lives and our Legacies

Susan Griffin's astonishing and perception-changing A Chorus of Stones clarifies the unavoidable and stark reality of how world events shape our personal values and lives.

I get it that in a moment everything I love and value can disappear in a cyclone, an earthquake, a tornado, a flood or fire. But Griffin's book is not about natural disasters. It is a powerful treatise illuminating the interplay between private suffering and public tragedy, the violence in families and in world wars. She writes:

"I have come to believe that
every life bears in some way on every other.
The motion of cause and effect is like
the motion of a wave in water, continuous ...
so that all consequences,
whether we know them or not,
are intimately embedded in our experience."

An example from my own life: It's November, 1963. I'm a young married woman, an English teacher in a New Jersey high school. It's 4th period, and I head to the teachers' lounge for coffee, thinking about the weekend ahead. The room is deserted except for a history teacher who tells me that President Kennedy has been shot. We leave the building to listen to her car radio. We return silently after hearing Walter Cronkite announce to the nation that the President is dead, assassinated in Dallas.

Etched into my psyche is my experience, neither unusual nor particularly dramatic -- everyone of a certain age remembers where they were when they heard about JFK's assassination, just as we are still telling the story of where we were on 9-11, the day the World Trade Center was attacked.

"Perhaps we are like stones;
our own history and the history of the world
embedded in us ... "

-Susan Griffin

But Griffin's point is that the impact of world events radically transforms our personal lives, and thus our legacies that impact future generations.

I couldn't agree more. Little did I know that the heartbreak of a nation beginning November 22, 1963, would change the course of my life.

In my personal grief, I vowed that I would act on Kennedy's inspiring words, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." I volunteered to serve in the Peace Corps. I spent two years in Tunisia, where I taught English and worked in a family planning project.

As in Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken," I don't know who I might have been had JFK not died. But the naive Midwestern young wife and high school English teacher who I was -- became a planetary citizen, a participant in a larger world, valuing peace and learning about diversity firsthand by living and working in a culture very different from our own.

Some Suggestions for Action Exploring ways your private life has been shaped by public events:
  1. Make a list of significant public events. Begin with the events of your own family: immigration, marriages, births, divorces, diseases, abuses, alcoholism, job losses, deaths. Then expand your list to world events: industrialization, scientific and technological development, elections, wars, revolutions, civil rights, recessions and depressions ... you get the idea.
  2. With recognition about the intertwined relationship between public events and private lives, reflect and journal about how world events have influenced your life and your values.
  3. Write a legacy letter (or several, about different events and for different people) sharing your insights and vignettes of your life path's twists and turns ... a letter communicating who you are and what you value relating your life to the larger world of which we are all integral parts.

(Editing Tip! Ask yourself: has what I have written accurately conveyed how my stories and the larger human story blend? Have I communicated my truth and deep human yearning for belonging and integrity, as well as how we are each related to the fate of others.)

May your reflections and writings
expand your consciousness and compassion
for yourself and for all others inhabiting our planet.

- Rachael Freed

You can find out more about communicating and preserving your legacy (ethical will) at or email: 
 Rachael Freed has published several works including Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations and Heartmates: A Guide for the Spouse and Family of the Heart Patient.

She is currently working on Harvesting the Wisdom of Our Lives: An Intergenerational Legacy Guide for Seniors and Their Families. Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker, adult educator, and legacy consultant. Her home is Minneapolis, Minnesota.

For more information, visit and

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