Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How do you want to be remembered?

"The man hated coconut."

"His smile was absolutely infectious."

"He lived with the best kind of humility--not the artificial humility that some people put on, but with the recognition that all people have their strengths, talents and experiences for which we should respect them."

    --quotes about my father in the eulogy given by his friend (and former boss). I hadn't remembered the coconut thing, but it explains my disgust with the white shreds of evil.

The question "How do you want to be remembered?" has been sort of a recurring theme for me over the past year. Personally and professionally, it's come up again and again in different contexts and scenarios. So I shouldn't be surprised that it reverberates through this summer.

The culminating project in a special leadership seminar I participated in at work was to write our own personal mission statements. Some people might perceive this as a touchy-feely exercise, but I found it profoundly important, especially coming so soon after the death of my father.  Some people end up focusing on the values they hold most dear; some people focus on the most fundamental roles they play; some people focus on what ultimately defines success for them.  There's no wrong way to do long as you're being authentic.

Despite my general avoidance of New Year's resolutions, my statement ended up being a list of resolutions--each of which expresses who/what I value and how I want to exemplify those values. Do I want to be remembered as a devoted spouse? Yes. A loving and supportive parent? Yes. As a hardass professor who expected the best from her students? You bet.  As a stunningly brilliant writer? Well, don't we all? I won't share my whole mission statement, but here's one point from it that I feel applies to all aspects of my life--family, friends, students, colleagues, writers, strangers...
I resolve to be more present--to focus more on the present moment as much as possible so I don't miss precious opportunities and experiences.
Not so easy. Not when it feels like 5 billion things are clamoring for my attention at once.  But that's one of my goals. For me, it's not directly about how I want to be remembered but what I think I need to do to personify what is most important to me.

Here's a little twist in the "How do you want to be remembered?" reverie. What we do in the digital world sticks around long after we've forgotten; all these bytes in the clouds have the potential to live forever. So, for instance, high school students don't just have to worry that pics of underage debauchery may be found by future college admissions reps...they have to worry about future spouses...and grandchildren...and historians. Previous generations could more easily hide some indiscretions (although Clinton "didn't inhale")...but now the lines between public and private are increasingly blurred.

And Adam Ostrow's TED presentation "After your final status update" shows a seriously plausible SciFi-turned-reality kind of immortality through our digitized selves

This has all sorts of repercussions. How do I want to be remembered? How much of that can I control? Both online and off, I can control quite a lot about how people perceive me, especially if I limit how much of myself they get to see.  But I still can't control everything.  I can control my actions and reactions by keeping my own ends and motives and values in mind. I can consider how closely my behavior (and my online presence) reflects my personal mission in life (and make adjustments accordingly...whether to my mission or to my actions).  And I'd consider myself lucky if I could be remembered as the kind of person my father was.

And so...I'd like to give you a little homework assignment:
  • Take a few moments (or a few days) to think about how you want to be remembered.  If you feel inclined, maybe draft your own mission statement.  You might compartmentalize (how do I want to be remembered as a a parent...etc) or you might do the whole "meaning of life" thing.  Whatever feels right to you.
  • Then, if you're willing to share, post some of your thoughts here in the comments section
I think you'll find the exercise surprisingly valuable.  Thanks for reading.


  1. My own mortality and advancing age have me considering this question, and it bothers me. If I were to die tomorrow, the funeral would be well attended, but the people would be there to support my family, and only a few would be there to remember me in any real way.

    I've tried to live an honorable life, but that's left me feeling alone and isolated. Not all of that has been by choice. Fifteen years of daily migraines took their toll on my oldest friendships.

    Some decisions had unforeseen consequences. When I was fired by a former employer for getting sick, I launched a five-year human rights case against them, which meant that friendships with old colleagues were sundered. I was a president and an instructor at a martial arts club, but lost my position (and my most important social group) when I stepped in to ensure that a teenager with an awkward learning disability could continue to train. Lately, I've been sorry to learn that several online friendships are that in name only.

    I have thought long and hard about the person I want to be, and the world I want to live in. It's not the life or the world I want.

    I want to remembered as a fine writer, a worthy environmental activist, a great husband, and a devoted and caring father (and I don't even have children yet!) I want people to say that I was kind and brave and funny, and that I loved life and lived with such passion!

    I have a long road ahead and I'm ready to begin that journey. I want my funeral to be standing room only, and I want everyone who attends to have something nice to say about me.

  2. I had the experience of a blog friend dying. Someone said a few days later that her blog was still "breathing." And that was true. It had that feel. Her last thoughts felt as present as ever. We do have a kind of immortality here (while it lasts). Her mother then went back through her blog and experienced parts of her for the first time.

    I've recorded quite a journey at my blog. And I like the depth of what's there.

  3. If we're speaking of presence, Precie, wouldn't the use of such technology as Ostrow mentions be a constant reminder of a loved one's absence?

    For me, as best as I understand it, memory and loss (absence) are tied together. Absence/a sense of loss triggers a memory of better or happier times. Likewise, the memory of better/happier times causes us to reflect on the fact that those days are over. We have lost that happiness.

    When we are happy, I think, we are most present, most in the moment. It is when things are not so great that we turn to our memories to console ourselves. In doing so, however, we only trigger this sense of loss--we have lost the good times, the excellent teacher, the loved one, etc.

    So, for me... I don't want to be remembered. I want to be a presence in the lives of those I love while I'm alive so they will have no need to remember me. And after I die, I want to be forgotten.

    The few deaths I have experienced are ones I still carry with me, years and years (decades, even!) after the people have been buried. I open even my happiest memories of them and I am overwhelmed by the emptiness and sadness and sense of profound loss. It feels selfish of me to want to inflict that sort of pain on anyone else. On the other hand, given the frequency that I do spend time wallowing in my memories, maybe there is a place or a reason or a need for that sort of pain.

    I don't know.

  4. First, I should have started with a disclaimer apologizing for delving into the morbid. But when these big questions take hold of me...

    Richard--Your journey already sounds more rocky than most, and yet your hopefulness is inspiring. It's sadly ironic to me that popularity and public success are sometimes at odds with honor. And I commend you for not taking the easy paths.

    Jason--Funny...sometimes (in previous blog incarnations) I've felt that I self-censor because I'm so afraid of what my mom or other people who know me would think. On a separate note, I agree with Aine that what you've created at CoN is a living, breathing tribute to foster an ever-evolving community of writers and thinkers who are kind, generous, and supportive. And your own blog posts do show, I think, great depth and growth and creativity. It's impressive.

    Cat--I love your perspective. I do wonder that, if the kind of technology Ostrow talks about were to evolve into reality, it would be a twisted almost "Pet Sematary" kind of record of the past. Hollywood already takes old historical snippets and massages them into new life, sometimes perversely (commercials, Forrest Gump, the newest X-Men movie, etc.). I can't say I want to be forgotten, but I do want to make enough of an impact on people that there's something they feel worth remembering. I don't want to think about people mourning me, but I also don't want to be a walking shadow that just dissipates into nothing, as if I'd never existed.

    Depressing thoughts. I promise my next post will be...sunnier. Thanks so much for contributing.

  5. I'm sorry I'm so late here. Mostly because of the overwhelming amount of inconsequential stuff that just has to be done in order to be present. So I giggled when I read that part of your post here.

    These are thoughts that have been on my mind lately as well. In fact the second blog post down on my page is about my process with these questions... Although not inspired by anyone's death, just my own kind of creative A.D.D. and the knowledge that what I put out there on the internet is the way I'm being perceived there, and that is actually different than my real world life. The duality is often kind of I've been thinking a lot lately about how I can use my online life to support my real life goals without getting so complete sucked into the online playgrounds available. It's a struggle to be sure.

    One of the things that it causes me to address though is that 'how I want to be remembered' thing. Despite all of my creative venues, I think 'fame' is the least of my concerns. Of course I want recognition, who doesn't? But mostly I want to make a basic living doing creative things I enjoy doing. Sounds like a funny epitaph, I know. But essentially it is about being in the present, as you have said. About gathering up the focus you need to pursue your goals, being a good friend and family member and general human being. I want to be remembered as being someone who inspired people to put one foot in front of the other and work toward their dreams, or even just to try new things.

    Well this is a little rambly and unfocussed as an answer but...I"m glad you posted this. Good things to think about. :-)