I’ve been telling you that one of my favorite books lately has been Morality by the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I love it on so many levels. It crosses political divides and just shares flat-out wisdom, on both a personal and a social level. I think if we all would put his ideas into practice, the world would be a much better place.
Toward the end of the book, in a passage I particularly enjoyed, Sacks writes at length about the distinction between resume virtues and eulogy virtues. Resume virtues are those traits that get us ahead in life: advanced degrees, training, media appearances, promotions, etc. They are about what we have learned and accomplished. Eulogy virtues are the traits that people remember us for: our generosity, our kindness. They are about the difference we made.
I loved this passage for a lot of reasons. One, it reminded me of the talk I gave when I received my honorary Ph.D. It was entitled “Live Your Life from the Deathbed Backwards.” I advised the young college graduates I was addressing, as they moved out into the “real world,” to think about what they wanted people to say about them after they were gone, and to plan their lives accordingly.
The second reason was that I related to it. I was only 36 when I gave that talk. I’m a lot older now. I’m thinking about what the rest of my life will look like. And I’m finding that I really really don’t care about resume virtues any more. When I face the Lord, I don’t think he will be interested in how much money I made, or how many degrees I collected. Except, of course, to the extent that I put that money and those degrees at the service of my fellow man. Which will be a huge part of my final Final Exam.
I want the world to be a better place, somehow, because I existed.
The third reason I loved that discussion was because I saw it play out, in real time, a few months ago. My dear friend Frank O’Connor passed away, gone too young at age 74. The beautiful tributes that have poured in for him have confirmed what I already knew — that he was the absolute personification of eulogy virtues.
When I first met Frank, it was because he had gathered a bunch of local Catholic Match members together to get to know each other in person. He was VERY recently widowed at that point, and he knew that he would be better off if he gathered people around him instead of shutting himself off in his grief. He also knew that he could enrich other lives along the way. And he did. He didn’t just get us all together once. He called us up every time he saw something interesting to do in town, and in the process created a very tight little group, several of whom are still my treasured friends today.
Shortly thereafter, his mother passed away. He asked me to manage the sale of her home. From that moment on, he was my greatest real estate cheerleader. He never missed an opportunity to promote me, and his thoughtfulness brought a lot of clients my way. And through that, even more friends.
He always said that the most important thing in life was to be present to family and friends. A nice thought. But he lived it. Radically.
I always knew Frank was an extraordinary human being. But until his funeral, I never knew the full measure of his generosity. First of all, he quite literally chose eulogy traits over resume traits when making decisions about his career. His first wife, Kim, was Korean. He met her when he was serving over there in the military. They came back to the U.S. to live their married life. Here Frank — a highly intelligent, extremely qualified man — had his pick of many, many fabulous jobs in the private sector. But his first thought wasn’t about his resume, it was about Kim. And he felt, as a newcomer to the U.S., that she would be more comfortable and welcome in a military environment, where she would find more diversity and more people like herself. So, he eschewed a lucrative career in the private sector and chose to continue his career with the U.S. Army.
But here was the story that really got me. After he retired from the military, he went to work in Corporate Personnel Management where, to the surprise of no one, he made many, many friends among his co-workers. At one point, one of these co-workers needed major surgery. But the operation would require a long recovery period, and she didn’t have enough vacation time saved up to cover it. So Frank, without a second thought, gave her all his accrued vacation days — which at that point totaled more than six weeks.
I would like to think that someday I might, just once, do something that generous. But I’m not holding my breath.
Frank’s resume itself was probably not much to look at. But his eulogy was a masterpiece — a true tribute to a life well lived.
I have made the point here before — probably several times — that we need to get over our tendency to think that we have to do “big things” to change the world, and that the small and the unnoticed day-to-day kindnesses somehow don’t count. But I’m going to keep repeating it — probably because I need to hear it as much as anybody. And I’m going to keep holding up the unnoticed, unsung heroes of everyday life. People like my friend Frank. Because those are the people we need to be emulating.
An impressive resume is nice. There is nothing wrong with building a successful career. But while you’re doing that, don’t forget the eulogy traits.
Those are the ones people are going to remember.