The Measure of a Life

The Measure of a Life

My own mortality seems to be moving closer to me in recent months as the protective ring of family elders that have stood so long between me and death is dying off. It’s not that I need this reminder, really, to heighten my somewhat constant sense of wanting to live a full and meaningful life—but it brings into relief the fact that understanding what constitutes a meaningful life has often seemed elusive and evolving.

I thought about this driving to a funeral this week, the second “celebration of life” I have attended this autumn. One of the things that struck me is what different values we as a society exhibit in trying to “prepare children for life”—the stuff that comprises the day-in, day-out focus of where we direct our children’s efforts and is mostly school-driven—compared to the values we use when reflecting on someone’s life at their funeral.

Our society has raised the value of achievement to such a high level that last year we were told by a child’s teacher that the standardized testing people would like every child to “know their numbers”—that is, the measure of their achievements on the test—and be able to recite these to their teachers. I can only imagine how this branding might affect a child’s understanding of what matters about him or her—and I can further envision how such a thing contributes to the rising suicide rates of young people. On this kind of scale, they are all measured—and all found wanting, even the high achievers, I learned. What else is the problem with this message? It contradicts the knowledge born in every human heart, that what matters is how we care for the world, not how we conquer it – our own personal being included. The top regrets of the dying suggest these values resurface for most people at the end of life.

And so, back to the funerals, what did I hear about those relatives in the eulogies and rembrances? Lists of all they achieved and the piles of money they were accorded because of this merit? Not at all. They were celebrated for qualities like integrity and optimism (two things that can actually be harmed by schooling). People came to honor them, telling stories of how they helped others out in times of difficulty. They were remembered for their quirks and their needlework and because they cared for their families.

After the funeral, we had lunch in the church hall, where we were served by church volunteers who made sandwiches and their specialty salads and desserts, which they do for such occasions every week. They spend hours planning, cooking, serving and cleaning up, all to help others share in community as the celebrate the closure of a life. On any economic measure or measure of achievement, the constant efforts of these volunteers would count as nothing. But there is also a level at which what they do is everything—giving their time and providing care regardless of accolades or financial gain. Could it be this that these under-emphasized ways of being are the real measure of a life, the one that matters? If what we elevate at the end is any indication, my takeaway this week is that the sum of a life’s worth will be measured…in love and caring.

“We can do no great things; only small things with great love.” – Mother Teresa

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