Last week with 9/11, I was writing about the nature of monumental/commemorative remembrance, but my daughter's comments about Robin Williams have me thinking about personal remembrance as well. Clearly Robin was a man who was fighting constantly a wall of darkness and pain. We should never underestimate the power of mental illness and anguish. I don't know that he was in a state to think about how much he would be missed. He was an almost maniacally energetic man who performed, acted and did an enormous amount of service work. Just see him above signing a soldier's program on his USO tour. He was clearly a "giver"--perhaps too much, but that may have simply been the way he had to be. From all that I've read about Robin, he felt the need to always be "on"--to continually be a comedian performing.
This has me thinking about how we define ourselves and how we ourselves want to be remembered when we are gone. If you ask most people "who are you" they will define themselves by roles. "Mother, husband, business owner, fireman, chef, teacher, nurse, bicyclist, runner--you can come up with hundreds of such classifications." However I think we need to examine this type of self-definition. By defining yourself in "roles" you attach to your self-perception a whole set of standards that may not be reasonable and that don't capture the essence and wholeness of you. We are all creative souls with a wide multitude of qualities and gifts that shouldn't be limited to the parts we play on a daily basis, the hats we wear. So, to bring this back to Robin Williams, his need to be "the comedian" was perhaps a defense mechanism for dealing with the Robin who suffered mental pain or who needed to attend to himself. How many of us do the same thing in different degrees? Do we use our jobs, our roles in families and communities, as ways of escaping recognizing and developing fully who we are?
As a teacher, I think I encounter people with similar personalities to Robin quite often. It's hard to be a teacher and not be a least partially a ham. Some of my colleagues clearly get an ego boost from being the "sage on the stage." Others want to be the kids' "buddies" and yet others are petrified nearly every year when they need to get back into the classroom (serious cases of stage fright) but do it anyhow because they are addicted to the role. Many teachers devote inordinate amounts of time to their classroom lessons, their students, tutoring and clubs--sometimes at the expense of their own interests, health and family relationships. The same can be said of women who devote themselves to some saintly vision of motherhood, runners (who will never be on the Olympic team) training and competing weekend after weekend, and business people devoting themselves to corporations who will likely reward their years of service with a going-away cake on a Friday afternoon. I used to be one of these people, beavering away to be the "best" of my assumed role (student, office worker, teacher). But in recent years I've had a shift and remembrance is partly why.
In twenty years, thirty years, fifty years, few people will remember my teaching. No one will be recalling my work as a student, an archaeologist, a yoga instructor, or an amateur musician. My parents won't be around to remember me as a great daughter. Friends and co-workers will dwindle in numbers by the year. So what is left? Who will remember me and how? Hopefully, there will be those who recall fondly that I was a multi-faceted, happy person who pursued life with gusto. Who was loving, kind and giving. Who approached life seriously but herself lightly. Someone who was passionate and compassionate. Smart but not smarmy. Wise but not arrogant. Balanced, fair and even-handed. This is how I want to be remembered. Not for my roles, or accomplishments, but rather for how I conducted myself on a daily basis with those who mean the most to me, and with the world in general. I want to leave behind the positive energy and example that I set--hopefully an energy that allowed others who came into contact with me to live a little more happily and freely. How do we get to that place?
- Think of some people near and dear who have passed on. What are the first things you remember about them--both good and bad.
- Take an example of someone who you don't remember fondly, and think why. Were they sharp-tongued, cheap, mean-spirited, malicious, meddling. It's alright to admit it to yourself because this is a great tool for learning how you don't want to be remembered. The drunk guy at office Christmas parties, the woman who was a nasty gossip, the aunt who never seemed satisfied with anything, the uncle who made too many lewd comments. Be brutally honest.
- For those you remember well, think about why. Was it the role they served (wow, Sally was a great accountant) or the good-naturedness of their personality (Sally always made time to listen when I had a problem). What qualities stand out, what habits and deeds?
- Make a list--literally, of how you think people will remember you. What are the negative possibilities? Will it be as the person who worked so much that you never got around to a family vacation? The person always screwing around with their cellphone and ignoring others at the dinner table? The person who drinks too much and gets to loose-lipped and loud at parties?
- Think about your finest qualities, those things you most want people to recall when they think of you. List them and think about what you can do to exhibit them more often. Maybe it means working less, playing more. Talking less, listening more. Working out less in the gym, walking more with friends and family. Putting away the cellphone when you are with others. Turning off the television and having a conversation, or tossing a ball with your child, or calling a relative.
I'll end with the final lyrics of a 1941 song with words by the famous Johnny Mercer, "I Remember You--written for Judy Garland who Mercer loved.
I remember too
A distant bell and stars that fell
Like rain out of the blue
When my life is through
And the angels ask me to recall the thrill of them all
Then I will tell them, I remember you
Be your best, most authentic self--not a set of roles you think you ought to play. Be the thrill that someone recalls. Be the person missed for all the positive energy and love you brought to this world each and every day. Be remembered well.
Artfully yours -- Lisabeth