As long as I can remember, I’ve had a complicated relationship with death. When I was a child, I lost my father to cancer. I remember hating those euphemisms for death. “I lost him to cancer.” Or “my father passed away.” He wasn’t lost. He didn’t somehow pass me by on a street and keep going.
He was dead.
And the more I thought about it, the more pissed off I’d be. It just seemed so horribly unfair. It took me many years to make peace with it, but I eventually did.
And in my search to make peace with his passing, I realized that I had learned a very important lesson.
You see – in experiencing death, I learned about life.
Steve Jobs, in his famous commencement address to the Stanford class of 2005, shared a personal habit he had. Every morning, as he got ready for his day, he’d glance in the mirror and ask himself “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” As he reflected each morning, if the answer was “no” for more than just a couple days, he took immediate action and made some changes.
As he shared this habit with a crowd of young, successful, hopeful graduates, he went on to explain “remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
I’ve thought of this quote almost as often as I’ve thought about my father’s funeral. It was a grand affair, his funeral. People flooded the funeral home and even crowded the hallway outside. Even in my youth, I remember being astonished that so many people turned out. My father was an immigrant to this country, and the only family he had present were my mother, brother and me. Everyone else present were friends, coworkers, and people he had taught and mentored over the years. Fellow writers, engineering students, other young immigrants who he and my mother had unofficially “adopted” over the years.
I listened to them tell stories of his life – about how he helped someone pass a particularly hard exam. How he shared my mother’s carefully packed, homemade Indian lunches with other coworkers who desperately missed food from their homeland. I heard about how his wit and sense of humor put a smile on their faces during the toughest of days. I heard about him helping his boss on a tough project and fading into the background when it was time to take credit.
These stories made me cry, and laugh, and wonder how I would be remembered one day.
You see, not one one person talked about his grades. Or his ability to conduct human-machine interface troubleshooting. No one mentioned his computer modeling skills. Or his digital signaling abilities.
We all seem to be so concerned with building our resume skills. Our lives are busy and demanding and stressful, yet we continue to strive for these “good on paper” skills. And here’s the rub – in the end, none of it matters. None of that is remembered.
I had a teacher in high school who asked us to write our own eulogy. How would we want to be remembered by our loved ones. None of us took it very seriously, and I remember hearing things like “Jason was a famous rockstar, who had lots of hit records and was survived by his 14 girlfriends.”
We’ve all grown up since those days, and now when I think of the legacy I want to leave behind, I am a bit more reflective.
Here’s the thing – we have one life to live, so why not be intentional about it?
As this year ends and a new one begins, let us all take a few minutes and think about the kind of person we want to be.
How do we want to be remembered?
What legacy do we want to leave behind?
What kind of relationships did we have?
I’ll be contemplating these questions and taking some time to write my own eulogy.
Won’t you join me?