Please forgive my indulgence to share a very deep lesson I learned this past year. It’s not a new lesson for me, but a powerful reminder of one I try to keep in focus throughout my life. I will die. You will too. The question is how we will die and how we will be remembered.
This year, I had the privilege of attending two memorial services. Yes, the “privilege.” Two amazing people in my life passed away after prolonged bouts with cancer.
I won’t share the details of their lives because I lack the ability to succinctly convey the impact Deb Cole and Cal Brown had on hundreds of people directly and thousands indirectly. At both services, however, lives were revealed that showed two people who courageously walked into the darkness with dignity. That darkness is of course death.
The last time I saw Deb, an artist, teacher, traveler, and consummate optimist, she was smiling and laughing as though she had not a care in the world despite knowing her days were numbered. Cal, a world renowned expert on rheumatoid arthritis, avid cyclist, boater and incurable optimist, displayed equal dignity in the face of death.
I remember asking Cal, during the last cycling excursion I would ever enjoy with him, what the prognosis was for his cancer. He flatly replied, “Oh there is no prognosis. I’m just trying to manage it the best I can.” It was then that I realized for the first time he was dying. It wasn’t news broken to me by others in a moment of hushed, fear-based gossip. It wasn’t a sobbing admission expressed in fear. It was a matter-of-fact comment from a man staring down death and calmly stating the inevitable.
At his funeral, Cal’s brother remembered the moment they received the pivotal diagnosis of likely death. He told Cal, “We’re going to battle this thing.”
Cal replied, “I’m not going to battle cancer. I’m going to interpret it.” He planned to “interpret” cancer. And he did. He understood it’s toll. He watched how people responded to him. As a doctor, he retained his clinical curiosity about the heinous infiltration to his body. He interpreted cancer just as we should interpret life.
Again…it would be impossible for me to express the dramatic impact these two people had on the lives of so many. The real lesson at both services, the two most magnificent memorials I have ever witnessed, is that our power is not in what we do or get for ourselves. It is the contributions we make to others.
So 2019 has been a tough year for many. Violence is high and we have become inured to mass shootings such that they barely make front page news. Suicide rates are up 33% in the last ten years according to the American Psychological Association. There is a lot more bad news to share…but what’s the point.
If you’re tense and nervous and you can’t relax, (yes! quoting from David Byrne of the Talking Heads!) you’re not alone. There is fortunately something you can do about it. Build your legacy.
I admit I couldn’t help at moments during the memorial services wonder what people would say about me when I die. (And please do NOT respond to tell me…please. It is NOT the purpose of this e-mail. The e-mail is my gift to YOU.) I wondered if I was alone so I asked others at these services and every one admitted that they had felt the same thought creeping in. In fact, nearly every one said they felt humbled.
Let’s be clear. Nobody felt humbled because these people had amassed wealth. Wealth addiction and the admiration of wealthy people has become a fascination worldwide bordering on pathological. Let it go.
They all felt humbled because you could literally feel the presence of Deb and Cal at their own services. Their spirits live on. The attendees felt humbled because they wondered if such magnificent memorials could or would be held in their honor. They felt humbled because they faced the truth of the inevitable. Eventually a life we lead gives way to a legacy left behind.
Legacy is a funny thing. We will all be remembered for something, but too often fail to consider our legacy until it is too late. For the wealthy, they create legacies by buying hospital wings, university buildings, and endowments. The rest of us have to go a different, humbler route and one I would argue is equally honorable…if not more.
My friends were remembered partially for the dignity of their deaths, but more by the humble contributions of their existence. I think that they died with calm dignity because they knew what they had accomplished. I wish the same for you. You will die too. It’s a truth worth considering so you can strive to be remembered as you wish. It is your legacy.
Christmas, even though I was raised as a Jewish boy, has always held a special place in my heart. I remember watching alone an old version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (the 1938 version with Reginald Owen and the only one I think worth watching) and crying so happily when he resolved his past to embark on a new and better future. To me, it is what this time of year is all about.
It’s cliche’ to say it is not about trees and lights and gifts, but yet we spend billions every year to ensure the symbolic trappings of the holiday are emblazoned throughout the landscape. But is this really the spirit of Christmas? Toys? Shopping? Food comas? Of course not.
We know Christmas is about something deeper, but struggle to tap into the love and unselfish giving that is truly Christmas. Not just once per year. But all year. All life. But how do we remind ourselves of that?
Remember life is not permanent. Live knowing death awaits. As we prepare for another year and a new beginning, my wish is for you to live to build a legacy that endures long after your body does.
It is a beautiful world. Live to give. Live to build a legacy that people will envy and, more importantly, seek to emulate.
Merry Christmas. God bless us all. Everyone…especially tiny Tim.
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