What Are We Doing Here?

“The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.” (Pablo Picasso)

Attribution: Donna CameronOver the last couple of weeks, we’ve been reminded—by their loss—of what a difference one person can make in the world and in the lives of others. While Aretha Franklin and John McCain shared very little in common in their lives or their vocations, they did share a generosity of spirit and passion for something much bigger than themselves. I’ve cried as I watched, read, and listened to eulogies and shared memories of these luminaries—cried for their loss, cried for the fact that what they represent is becoming rarer and rarer in public life, and for the families, friends, and admirers who will feel their loss forever. I’ve also laughed frequently—at the stories and remembrances, the pure joy and celebration that their lives inspired, even in death. I have been reminded of a favorite line from the brief, but exquisite, D.H. Lawrence poem, “When the Ripe Fruit Falls”:

When fulfilled people die
the essential oil of their experience enters
the veins of living space, and adds a glisten
to the atom, to the body of immortal chaos.

With these thoughts in my mind as I read Leonard Pitts’ recent column, “With all due respect, President Trump, what do you want people to say at your own funeral?” I was left with an abiding pity for Donald Trump. Yes, I still dislike the man, despise what he stands for, and despair over the damage he and his accomplices have inflicted on our country and the world. Yet, I pity him, for he will never know the love Aretha Franklin and John McCain knew. He will not die with the peaceful knowledge that he has done his best and given his all. Read Leonard Pitts’ column. It’s perfect. Because even though he’s speaking to Donald Trump, he’s speaking to the rest of us, too.

Lastly, I offer a three-year-old blog post of my own, asking us to think about our own legacy.

Thinking About Our Legacy

“It is not the nature of the task, but its consecration, that is the vital thing.” (Martin Buber)

• PEARLS BEFORE SWINE © 2015 Stephan Pastis. Reprinted by permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK for UFS. All rights reserved.

• PEARLS BEFORE SWINE © 2015 Stephan Pastis. Reprinted by permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK for UFS. All rights reserved.

In the preface to his recently published book, The Road to Character, David Brooks talks about the difference between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” Brooks describes the former as the skills and proficiencies you list on your resume—those abilities that help you land a job and be successful in your profession. He describes eulogy virtues as the qualities that are likely to be mentioned at your funeral, “the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” Brooks admits that for much of his life he gave priority to resume qualities rather than eulogy ones.

I don’t suppose many of us want to think about our funerals, or what people are going to be saying about us as they stand somberly at the podium or nosh on Swedish meatballs and potato salad later. But it’s probably a safe bet that they’re not going to be talking about the wealth or possessions we accumulated. And they’re not going to be lauding our knack with PowerPoint or Excel, or our ability to sell cars, write code, or design heating systems. And if perchance they do, it won’t be about the skill itself, but about the heart and soul that we brought to that ability.

Maybe they’ll talk about the passion we brought to our job, the humor, the patience, the integrity, the kindness. And separate from our jobs, they’ll talk about the qualities that stood out to them. For each of us, those will be different and they may include courage, loyalty, reliability, devotion, compassion, commitment. Each friend and colleague will likely see us differently: to one we were a mentor, to another a buddy, and yet to another we were a sociable neighbor or a wise-cracking cubicle-mate. Each will recall different special qualities depending on the relationship and their own needs and interactions. Yet each of us probably has a few overarching qualities that others recognize as our legacy.

Even for those whose jobs contributed significantly to the community’s, or perhaps the world’s, wellbeing—doctor, statesman, author, scientist—it’s not necessarily the skill or the accomplishment that will be cited, but the dedication and intentionality that accompanied that accomplishment. Equally important as the surgeon’s skill with the scalpel is the compassion she brings to her patients and their families, and to her colleagues in the operating theater. And if the author who pens the greatest literary work of the 21st century is seen off the page as one of the biggest jerks of the century, too, he has earned—at best—hollow tributes.

It bears thinking about now if we want to leave behind us a legacy of friendship, or courage, or faith … or kindness. I have always loved the short poem, Late Fragment, said to have been written by the great Raymond Carver just hours before his death.

It so beautifully describes a life that didn’t end in regret.  As we cultivate our skills in order to achieve professional or creative success, we need also to cultivate the qualities of personal success, those that go beyond our technical or career proficiencies. Think about what values or virtues you want to don each morning when you rise, wear throughout your day and tuck under your pillow when you sleep. Whether it’s faith, kindness, integrity, friendship, courage, or all of the above, choose to live your eulogy every day.

It’s either that, or learn to be a damn good parallel parker….

“Love doesn’t mean doing extraordinary or heroic things. It means knowing how to do ordinary things with tenderness.” (Jean Vanier)