We spend our whole living fighting to have our say — in our families, marriages, careers. But in the end, when our loved ones gather in pews and hold back tears, we won’t have the final say on how our lives turned out. That task will be left to others.
On occasion, the job has been left to me. I speak for a living. Yet, the most difficult speeches I have ever given were eulogies that I was honored to deliver on behalf of beloved friends, uncles and a cousin who left us too soon.
When I go to be with the Lord, I don’t want loved ones to recite my accomplishments. I want them to talk about my impact on others. I want them to say what kind of son, brother, husband, and — most importantly of all — father I was. That is all that will matter, in the end.
New York Times columnist David Brooks describes a tension, within all of us, between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”
A few years ago, Brooks wrote: “The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love? We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”
So true. Human beings would all be far better off if we worried less about what we felt needed to accomplish and more about becoming good people.
Several months ago, my wife and I were having dinner with my college roommate and his wife. Both of us have young children. My old friend posed an interesting question, one that I was sure he had asked himself a time or two.
“Would you prefer that your kids grow up to go to Harvard like we did, or that they grow up to be good people?” he asked.
I didn’t hesitate. “Good people,” I said. He said the same.
As a lawyer, and a journalist, my friend and I have probably — as we have gone about plying our trades — met more Ivy League graduates than we have people who are genuinely good.
For many of us, the resume virtues have a big head start on the eulogy virtues, and it often seems as if the latter will never manage to catch up to the former. Besides, it’s easier to tell if someone has a good resume than if he has a good soul.
I don’t need to tell you which one of those things leaves a more lasting legacy and leads to eternal light.
Barbara Bush knew the answer. The former First Lady, who recently died at age 92, was affectionately called the “Silver Fox” and was more popular than her husband, former President George H.W. Bush. Her passing gave Americans the chance to reflect on her life and marvel at her character and values.
Some years ago, when a reporter asked her what she wanted her legacy to be, Bush said quickly and unequivocally: “The children and the grandchildren.”
It fell to one of those children — Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor — to give the eulogy. He recalled that his mother was “our first and most important teacher,” and that she taught her children to be grateful, humble and kind.
Her orders were simple, he said. “Always tell the truth. Never disparage anyone. Serve others. Treat everyone as you want to be treated and love your God with your heart and soul.”
In her oft-cited Commencement Speech at Wellesley College in June 1990, Bush told the graduates to cherish their “human connections” and value relationships with family and friends.
“As important as your obligations as a doctor, a lawyer, a business leader will be, you are a human being first,” she said. “And those human connections — with spouses, with children, with friends — are the most important investments you will ever make. At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent.”
At the end of her life, Barbara Bush likely had few regrets. How could it be otherwise? Her investments in human connections paid off handsomely. Her legacy was strong. Her life was full of meaning. And her eulogy virtues were intact.
Ruben Navarrette, a contributing editor to Angelus News, is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, a Daily Beast columnist, author of “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano,” and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.”
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