How Do We Want To Be Remembered?

Sunlight glinting off rippling waves on body of water.
The great social activist Dorothy Day said each action we take for the good causes a ripple effect. (Photo by J. Alden Marlatt)

I spent a few days recently in Chicago. It’s always a glorious sight to see the sun rise in the East over Lake Michigan. One morning I woke early determined to snap a photograph. By the time I pulled out my camera and adjusted the lens, a blanket of clouds moved in obscuring the sun’s bright disk. I had missed the moment!

The experience caused me to reflect on how swiftly life changes. Children crawling across a carpet one day are graduating from college the next, or so it seems. Careers end. Parents age. Friends move on. We ask ourselves, how did it all happen?

I have been especially aware of life’s fragility after losing three close friends within the span of just a week. One was Bob Abernethy with whom I worked for many years on the PBS-TV program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” Another was James Serritella, the longtime legal counsel to the Archdiocese of Chicago who adopted me into his large Italian American family when I was a young single woman living in that city.

The third was Bob Starke, one of the most fun-loving people I’ve ever known. I and my husband spent nearly every New Year’s Eve since we were married with Bob and his wife Gloria. Each of these friends influenced my life in a significant way. The loss in each case was sudden. It leaves a void that won’t soon be filled.

Because Bob Abernethy and Jim Serritella had high-profile careers, The New York Times reported their deaths, a distinction given to increasingly few. Like 99.9 percent of the population, my own death is unlikely to merit a mention in any major news outlet. Even local papers have become selective about the obituaries they print. So how will I be remembered?

Interestingly, what people remembered most about each of these friends had nothing to do with professional achievements. They recalled a particular kindness each of these men had rendered, how generous or funny they were, how they gave of their time to mentor others, how they had overcome a setback or stared down adversity.

It would be a sad life indeed if what our friends remember most about us is how much money we made in the stock market, what great deals we engineered, or how much we enjoyed ourselves at the expense of others.

Celtic crosses in a graveyard.
Celtic crosses in a graveyard.
“Day by day remind yourself you are going to die. Hour by hour keep careful watch over all you do,” is a famous line from the 6th century “Rule of St. Benedict” that many in this pandemic year seem to have taken to heart. (Photo by Pat Leyko Connelly).

In his book, The Road to Character, columnist David Brooks draws a distinction between resume values and eulogy virtues. Resume values describe the skills we bring to the marketplace. Eulogy virtues are what define our character. They are the virtues people remember when we die. Were we kind, brave, honest, faithful? Were we capable of great love?

St. Benedict, in his Rule for monastic life, offers some compelling advice. “Day by day remind yourself you are going to die,” he writes. “Hour by hour, keep careful watch over all that you do.” How differently we might act if we woke up each morning with the thought that this just might be the last day.

Lest we think St. Benedict was given to excessive morbidity, The New York Times ran an article recently on a Catholic sister who has gained a large Twitter following for her “Memento mori” (Remembrance of death) ministry in which she encourages us to reflect daily on the inevitability of our own death. It seems in this pandemic year, that’s exactly what many people are doing.

In the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey recommends picturing yourself at your own wake. What are the comments from family and friends you are likely to overhear? How would you want to be remembered?

In my case, I hope what others remember aren’t the times that I lost my temper or acted impatiently or selfishly. I hope I will be remembered as a faithful friend, a good listener, a talented writer, a person who responded to the needs of others.

When we consciously think about what we want our legacy to be, it’s easier to live as the person we want others to remember.

The great social activist Dorothy Day used to say each of us holds a pebble within us, that given away, can make a difference in the great ocean of need. It might be some small service we render or a random act of kindness. It will cause a ripple. It will make a difference.

What are the pebbles we can toss into the ocean of need? What are the “eulogy virtues” by which our friends will remember us? Were we kind? Were we generous? Were we capable of great love?

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble of the Daughters of St. Paul near the crypts of members of her order. She has a “Memento mori” social media ministry that encourages people to reflect on their own death. (Photo by Tony Luong/ The New York Times)

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.

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