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What Will They Say About You?

November 30, 2014 | by Rabbi Daniel Cohen

What would your children say about you at your funeral?

The story is told of Alfred Nobel, the chemist who invented dynamite. When his brother Ludvig passed away, a French newspaper mistakenly wrote an obituary about Alfred entitled "The Merchant of Death." Shocked that he was viewed as the curator of death, Alfred did some soul searching and decided to leave a different mark on the world by endowing the Nobel Prize with his wealth.

Alfred Nobel had the advantage of seeing his eulogy in print. It was his wake up call and he chose to alter his life and legacy.

We rarely get that kind of preview to hear another person's perception of us at the end of our lives.

In truth, such awakenings abound. How often do we leave a funeral and ask ourselves, "What will they say about me?" or when experiencing a sickness, a life transition or new job. It could be a life affirming moment such as the birth of a child or a wedding. We will all experience these moments when we gain clarity of mind and purpose and yearn to lead our lives a little bit fuller and better.

It is precisely a brush with our own mortality that inspires us to lead lives of greater impact and import. But how long will that inspiration last?

The challenge is not simply to wish or dream that our lives will be different but to truly commit to making them so. How do we sustain the momentum to truly achieve personal greatness?

Having officiated at hundreds of funerals, sat at the bedside of the dying and reflected on the value of a meaningful life, I have developed seven strategies for reverse engineering your life. Through a process of writing your own eulogy and following these steps, you can lead the life now for which you want to be remembered.

Creating Memories

One of the key steps to ensure lives of greater impact is to be fully conscious that we are creating memories at all time.

A legacy is built moment by moment.

When I sit down with a family to compose a eulogy, I ask the loved ones to focus on the nature of the person. Was he family oriented, was she generous of spirit? How would you describe the kind of person he/she was? It is not uncommon for someone to tell me that the deceased never missed a Yankees game or even a Mets game or loved to watch TV, but I try to dig deeper. The family gets it. We get it. We all recognize that rabid baseball or football fans come and go but the strength of one's character and influence endures forever.

Let's try the following exercise to clarify this idea.

Name three noble traits – ones to which we all aspire.

How about trustworthy, kind, and family-oriented?

We may hear at a funeral: "He was a man of his word. We could trust him."

Although this is a simple description, its significance is profound. We all would like to be remembered this way but it will not happen without the ability of other people to bear testimony to our honesty.

We will be known as honest if in every interaction and in every encounter we did our utmost to be a person others could count on.

We will be known as kind if we can affirm that we rarely if ever spoke ill no matter the temptation.

We will be known as family-oriented if we truly make our families a priority every day.

We will be known as family-oriented if we truly make our families a priority every day.

This idea hit home when I asked the participants in one of my classes, "What would your children say about you at your funeral? Would they know what to say?"

One of the people responded, "Well, I guess I could tell them what they should say."

In an instant, we all realized the foolishness of this answer. Our children should know what to say about us not because we tell them what to say but because we live our lives embodying our core values.

As Bob Dylan once said, "If you want to keep your memories, you first have to live them."

Remembering Moments

We do not remember days, we remember moments.

Think back on the lives of people close to you... what stands out... usually it is an experience we shared with them or a moment in time. The days become a blur but the best of memories are when it seems that time stands still and we will never forget that shared experience.

Do we appreciate the impact of memories we create in the hearts and minds of family and friends?

One of the happiest moments of my life was walking to synagogue with my father in the pouring rain. Although we were soaked, my spirit soared. There was no place I would rather be at that moment than holding my father's hand on the way to synagogue.

In a dramatic and poignant way, this idea further resonated within me at a funeral this past year. I encouraged one of the deceased's daughters to speak. Her relationship with her mother was challenging yet I urged her to take the opportunity to thank her mother and reflect albeit briefly on her legacy. She spoke for only a few minutes and introduced her remarks by stating that from over 50 years with her mother two memories stood out.

This is one of them that she shared.

"I will never forget when I was 8 years old. I was fast asleep. My mother came into my room around midnight. It was snowing outside and she woke me. I was startled and wondered why she disturbed my sleep. I will never forget was she said and that night. She told me she wanted to me to get dressed so we could play together in the fresh snow outside."

The daughter knew her mom for over 50 years and it is this moment that her mother spontaneously created that endures.

How do we create such moments?

I think the answer lies in insuring that we are living in these moments.

Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.

Life is not measured by the breaths you take but by the moments that take your breath away.

Time does go by so quickly but if we pause and reflect on the second we are experiencing and sense the opportunity within... to be present with a spouse, a friend, a child, to lend a hand, make a blessing, study one insight... the fleeting moment can be eternalized.

What will happen is not only will these memories be etched into our hearts but our lives now will be so much more meaningful. With this perspective, we will be able to transform our lives and those around us... one step at a time.

What they say about you? If we reverse engineer our lives, we will live inspired, we will touch thousands and we will be known for our very best selves now and forever.

In my forthcoming book, What Will They Say About You? Seven Principles for Reverse Engineering Your Life!, I explore how to live your life backwards and the steps we can we take now to enrich our lives and ensure lives of greater impact.

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