As he transitioned into old age, Dad continued to define himself as he had during his working years, only to fall short in his own mind now that he couldn’t match his previous pace. In a self-published book, a slightly veiled memoir, penned three years before he died, my dad wrote, “All his life he drove a four-door family sedan but when motorcyclists roared past him on his left, he felt that life had passed him by as well.”
My mother had long managed a psychotherapy practice, work she was very proud of, but I noted that as she got older, she became more focused on “eulogy virtues” — meaning how you are remembered at your funeral.
In 2014, she was diagnosed with lung cancer. At one point during her radiation treatment, she asked point blank, “How will you remember me after I’m gone?” Her gravestone inscription captures my sentiments perfectly, and it doesn’t take away from her years as a working person to say nothing would have pleased her more as a mother, wife, and grandmother.
Until recently, I’ve lived a life more like my dad, with much of my energy focused on earning more, beefing up my résumé looking to achieve greater success.
At one point, I joined the short-lived social media platform Klout, which allegedly measured how influential you were based on your social media networks. Its algorithm paid no attention to volunteer activities, community involvement, philanthropy, or family time and relationships. I worked my rear end off to earn a respectable Klout score, which to my delight placed me ahead of most of my colleagues. I didn’t notice then how one-dimensional this definition of success was — or how potentially limiting, especially to one’s happiness.
For instance, last year, I was invited to participate as a panelist at a journalism conference; three years earlier, I had moderated the major plenary of that year’s conference, an honor previously awarded to some of my profession’s biggest names. Now I was a mere panelist?
I’m saddened to admit how much that perceived demotion bothered me. It did, however, prompt an internal debate about what matters most at this stage of my life. I’d recently heard a lecture by writer and thinker Arthur C. Brooks, where he talked about transitioning from résumé virtues to eulogy virtues. Brooks asked himself if there were anything he could do, “starting now, to give myself a shot at avoiding misery — and maybe even achieve happiness — when the music inevitably stops?”
Studies show that in many countries, including the United States, contentment grows from our 50s until about 70. “After 70,” Brooks wrote in an essay, “some people stay steady in happiness [while] others get happier until death. Others — men in particular — see their happiness plummet.”
Actually, research has shown that depression and suicide rates increase for men in their 70s.
While still closer to 60 than 70, I wanted to better understand why some of us get happier as we get older. According to a team of UCLA and Princeton researchers, unhappiness has to do with whether we feel useful or, to the contrary, irrelevant. I think it’s fair to say that my dad suffered because of his perceived loss of identity or relevance. In his book, he wrote about disappointment. “The senior professor told his wife that the new [department] chairman had talked about getting rid of ‘dead wood’; that evening he had trouble getting to sleep.”
I was curious as to how my friends faced this transition, from résumé to eulogy virtues, a proxy for happiness. On Facebook, I asked how they wanted to be remembered, which resulted in a chorus of eulogy virtues, like “kind,” “loyal,” “compassionate,” “she raised great kids,” and “someone who tried to make the world a little better.” One friend hoped to be memorialized for his “fantastic lasagna Bolognese.” Only two people actually confessed to seeking remembrance for professional accomplishments.
I thought of this online conversation as I considered my panelist invitation. Ego and pride stared back at me from the mirror, but I stared them down and agreed to participate.
As it turned out, I found the discussion both rewarding and enjoyable. I had plenty to contribute, and found I had plenty to learn. I took joy in seeing some of my younger colleagues forge ahead on a road I knew quite well, and I took satisfaction when later I was asked to be a mentor to one of the more junior columnists.
Like my Facebook friends, I strive increasingly to be kind and loyal — I’d like to be someone who leaves the world a little bit better than I found it. I try to take small, unplanned actions that embody kindness. I take note of others who do, too.
For example, during a recent ice storm, a neighbor — a retired academic — picked up my newspaper from the driveway and deposited it right outside my front door. He has often made cookies and dog treats for those of us in the ‘hood, all perfect representations of how I’d hope to be remembered.
Would I have done the same thing even 10 years ago? Probably not — not out of any deliberate unkindness, but because I would have been rushing do the next thing — a meeting, an assignment — and not even notice the opportunity for kindness.
“A life is made up of moments,” Mike Sturm, who has written about the importance of eulogy virtues, said in an essay in Medium. “A person’s character, then, is also made up of moments. How they acted at some moment, what they did for others at some moment, how they made others feel at some moment.”
It’s not easy to reprioritize my values after decades of focusing on success-power-influence, and I fall short repeatedly. But every day presents a new opportunity to do better, one small moment at a time.
In thinking back on my father’s last years, what saddens me most is that while his happiness declined, his legacy did not. Soon after he died, and more than 15 years after he retired, his colleagues and students profusely acknowledged his résumé virtues — but their tributes also eulogized his humanity, noting he had been “a wonderful mentor and advocate,” and not least of all, “an amazing man with a kind heart.”
I wish my dad had been able to hear that.