What makes people truly good?
A FUNERAL CAN TEACH YOU A LOT about life. Last Saturday I found myself comfortably squished in an overfilled church for the final celebration of an elderly man who had died quite suddenly but while still actively engaged in life, or, as his daughter told me afterwards, “while still in the saddle.”
Her father had accomplished much in his professional life, and while that was presented in a brief bio, it was his deep goodness, kind nature, and abundant zest for living that triggered a genuine outpouring of love, admiration and gratitude that afternoon. Embedded in the eulogy delivered by his sons were the secrets of a life fully lived, an earthly journey fully embraced. We heard what we really already knew—that his family and community meant everything to him, that he gave endlessly to so many without keeping tabs, and that he had an unselfconscious inner radiance that drew people in and kindled in them the yearning to be that way too.
Last fall I sat at the death bed of a cherished uncle in Holland whose ravaging disease had suddenly come roaring back after a 10-year reprieve. There wasn’t much time to get ready, he conceded sadly, but he put his heart and soul and remaining energy into the future well-being of all of his beloved ones and everyone he knew. This wasn’t new; it was how he’d lived his entire life, and how he had become everyone’s hero and mentor. He’d always had a special inner light—of which he himself was quite unaware—and now, in his waning days, it held its glow even as his health and strength rapidly deteriorated. I’ll never forget my last visit with him before I reluctantly caught my flight home. He died about a week later.
He wanted no flowers at his funeral, which puzzled the hundreds of mourners because the Dutch do and say everything with stunning bouquets. Then they saw the buckets of white roses flanking his casket, heard the invitation to take one home, and understood the magnitude of his final gift and goodness. (Goodness will exist for as long as there are people to carry its torch. People like my thoughtful cousin who, knowing my sorrow over missing the funeral, emailed me a photo of the rose he’d been given so that I could also have one for my own.)
When I asked another cousin for his thoughts on the service, he replied most candidly in the plainest English, “I lost a lot of tears.”
Both my uncle and my friend’s dad had amassed over their lifetimes a wealth of “eulogy virtues,” to use a term coined a few years ago by New York Times columnist David Brooks. According to Brooks, eulogy virtues are the intangible assets of inner character that are quite unrelated to the more conventional and measurable “resumé virtues.” They’re the enduring qualities—kindness, generosity, honesty, empathy, and so on—that we’d all like to see more of in ourselves but, well, often just don’t get around to cultivating, life being so busy and everything.
Eulogy virtues are not just for eulogies, of course, but it is then, when all other preoccupations are temporarily muted and life is contemplated through a longer lens, that clarity can alight. I came away feeling resolved to live my life more gratefully and fully alert. These men inspired me and I wanted to linger for a while and stand in their aura.
Back in my daily routine, obstacles such as pride, impatience and selfishness get in the way and probably always will. And then there’s the question of motive. If I’m “improving” myself just to be praised at my hopefully far-into-the-future eulogy, that’s just more me-ism and gallingly disingenuous. (When I was a kid I decided I was going to get some respect by becoming a saint. The holiness lasted for about a day. Motive is everything.)
Brooks’ own research suggests that deeply good people are selfless and humble. I believe that they also love life, respect and revere nature, possess great empathy, laugh easily, are deeply rooted in community and lead an intentionally meaningful life. I would bet that they’re good listeners.
From them, and especially during these unsettling times, I can learn a lot about life.
Trudy looks forward to getting back into her garden where Humility is waiting with more of life’s lessons.
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