Last weekend I attended a funeral for a wonderful woman in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. While funerals are of course sad affairs, when they're for someone who has died of "natural causes" at an old age, I tend to be less sad and more contemplative about how they lived their lives and what I can learn from them.
At the funeral, person after person got up to speak about the generosity of this woman. She was a loving grandmother and great-grandmother. She was a teacher and a librarian. She was an elder in her church and she welcomed new community members with open arms, often being the first "node" they met. She served as a starting point to make them feel more comfortable in their new surroundings.
A 23 year old grandchild got up to speak about how she was his life's exemplar. The career he is pursuing and the values which he lives by are a direct result of his grandmother's influence.
After the graveside service, I was driving with my Dad and we discussed how we've all thought of our own funerals. What will people say about us when we're gone? When the definition of our lives must be condensed down to a 30 minute memorial service, what are our 5 bullet points going to be?
Everyone has heard the adage "no one wishes at the end of their life they had worked more," but what does that phrase really mean? For some it means they wished they had spent more time with their family. For others, more time having fun, or more time with their kids, or giving more of themselves to others.
Among people I know, most earnestly want to achieve a balanced lifestyle (isn't that really what that adage is getting at? A lack of balance?) They want to take care of themselves financially, then they'll begin donating time and money to others. I know until recently this is the attitude I carried, focusing almost exclusively on work and just trying to be a decent friend and family member. After I've "made it" is when I'll start to truly give back.
But then my attitude(?), maturity level(?), begun to change. In my reading I found myself more attracted to the stories about people giving of themselves vs. those whose companies just got bought or earned investments. Sermons reminding me about "giving back" were resonating more. The plight of others in need begun having a more profound impact on me.
Do I still want to "get mine?" Of course. But I've already begun altering my schedule in fits and starts the last year through volunteering. And I know by doing so I've already had a tangible impact on several people's lives. And those few hours of volunteering felt damn better than any deal we won or compliment we received for our software. Some might say I should therefore find something else to work on. But I think the answer is instead to give even more.
We work. We make salaries. We live in comfort. In turn we have the ability to help others. I realize it's all somewhat symbiotic. But when does one shift the balance? Instead of waiting until a magical time when there are seven figures in my bank account which may never come, why not start spending more of my time giving now? Isn't that simply another way of achieving wealth?
I guess that is why there is so much attention at the end of someone's life about what they gave of themselves. Because despite the incessant focus on money and achievement in our society, in the end, that's how we still judge you. What did you give of yourself?