When we think about receiving an inheritance, the usual images that come to mind are money, land, houses, and perhaps precious jewels or antiques. Most wills contain some provisions for which person gets which assets. Conflicts often arise over who got more or less of the bequest. This is not a pretty picture and only serves to dishonor the loving parents’ intentions when they made their choices.
I am about to give you another option for leaving your children and grandchildren something that far outweighs any material goods.
Buddhist teacher Nhất Hanh (b. 1926), in his book How to Love, tells us:
“The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children is their own happiness. Our parents may be able to leave us money, houses, and land, but they may not be happy people. If we have happy parents, we have received the richest inheritance of all.”
In my counseling practice I see many couples each week who report they are “unhappy” in their relationship or marriage. If they have children, most do not want to separate or divorce because they are afraid it will “ruin“ their children. That sounds like a valid worry. But in truth, it should not be a reason to remain in an unhappy and unsatisfying relationship.
Parents have the first and most profound impact on the development of their children’s personalities, values, and the lens through which they see the world. Kids learn by example. Parents are role models—predictors of what these small human beings will become as they mature into adulthood. A child who grows up in a home where his or her parents are chronically unhappy or mired in conflict will come to see that misery as normal. It then becomes very difficult for that little person to form a happy relationship as an adult.
Have you ever heard the adage that we cannot give what we do not have ourselves? If we are not happy, how can we show happiness to others? Joy in one’s life or intimate partnership is an inside job, a choice we make. Most of us aspire to genuine satisfaction, and we want to see our children achieve this as well. But if we can’t touch base with this happiness in our own lives, we can’t teach it or pass it on to our children.
If you were looking for someone to give lessons in ice skating, would you sign your child up with someone who had never skated? No, of course not. You want someone who can perform the patterns and jumps that we see in a beautiful ice show or a competition. A teacher of any skill must show her or his students what that behavior looks like and guide them in their early attempts to approximate new actions. A teacher will correct them when they need improvement and applaud them when they succeed.
Being happy is our birthright. But it will not just appear at your front door. Someone must pave the way by showing what it looks like and then provide the tools to get there. One way to do that is through therapy. We can take control over our emotions, thoughts, and actions. Depression is a habit that can be challenged and altered by the discipline of choosing to be inspired, uplifted, and glad to be alive.
I have had many therapy clients whose parents’ marriages were troubled. Some of these couples stayed together. None of the children of those marriages has told me, “I’m so glad my parents didn’t get a divorce. It helped me so much when they decided to stay together even though they no longer really loved each other.” Instead, I hear stories of inherited regret, hopelessness, frustration, and anger. Children of these marriages wind up having to work hard to resolve the issues their parents did not face, if they want to ever learn how to find a partner who is appropriate for a healthy, long-term commitment.
Children of divorced parents can be as happy and healthy as anyone else. But this depends on you. Show them you were strong enough to choose a better life, and then they can make better choices for themselves. And if you stay married maybe couples counseling can help provide a way to reach individual happiness which in turn can benefit the family. Don’t settle for quiet misery. Make today the first day that you feel happy. Your example will be like a well of pure, living water, affording you the best gift to bestow while alive and after death, an inheritance to surpass all others.