My friend Lucas is having a tough time. Like many of us in our ‘middle years’ he finds himself ‘going through the motions’ of life and wondering what the hell it’s all about. You go to work, pay the bills, pick up the kids from school, do the shopping, do the housework, watch television, go to bed – and then the next day you wake up and it starts all over again.
Not all of us can be (or want to be) someone who has demonstrably ‘changed the world’. But too often, we get to thinking that just living our lives isn’t enough. We think that, for our lives to be of any value, we should achieve something earth-shattering – and instead, we’re stuck in the frozen food aisle at Woolies wondering whether there’s enough in the bank to cover this week’s shopping. It’s very easy to feel that, in comparison to some, we are leading very small lives; lives, perhaps, that are just not worth very much.
My brother died of a brain tumour a couple of years ago. He was nine years older than me, but I was always the ‘big sister’ and he was my ‘little brother’. Like Lucas, he struggled with his self-worth. He wanted to be rich – and, oh, there were so many network marketing scams just waiting to exploit his ambitions. He wanted to invent something enormous. He had visions of grand engineering and architectural and maritime schemes that would revolutionise the way we live. He wanted to save the world. The fact that he didn’t really achieve any of these things made him, at times, angry, depressed, bewildered and sad.
When he looked in the mirror he didn’t see the same person I saw. I saw someone whose life was a success, he saw a failure.
I looked at him in comparison to me. I was single, childless and penniless. He had achieved everything I hadn’t.
Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t all doom and gloom. I had a lovely relationship with my brother. He was, for the most part, happy and funny and loving and generous and he did appreciate his great good fortune in having a long and successful marriage, great kids and grand-kids, a loving family, a nice home and financial security. He just wanted more.
The problem was (at least as I saw it) that wanting more compromised his ability to fully rejoice in what he already had. He was pining for ‘success‘, and failing to realise he already had far more real success than 99.99 per cent of the world’s population.
My brother didn’t waste his life, but he often felt as if he had. I’m trying to think how to put this. Perhaps it’s like being a hypochondriac. Imagine having all the advantages of good health, but never being able to fully enjoy it because you are constantly concerned that you’re really a physical wreck. Or perhaps it’s like having the kind of body dysmorphia that leads one to see their perfectly healthy sized body as morbidly obese.
When my brother died, I had just one overriding thought; that I wanted to honestly address his life-long concern that his life had not been a success. I’d never really managed to convince him of that, but I hoped I could use his death to to make those he left behind really think about the true ‘meaning of life. And no, Lucas, it’s not 42; although it’s almost that simple.
Have you ever really listened to what people talk about at funerals?
When you’re lying in your coffin with your friends and family gathered to say their last goodbyes, do you really think someone’s going to pull out your bank statement and say, “Ah, Joe, what a fine fellow. Look, $2.5 million in the bank and another $3 million in shares!”
The fact is, when you die, the people who love you – the ones who really matter – aren’t going to give a rats arse about how much money you made or your brilliant career achievements. They’re going to talk about the most mundane and pedestrian of things – because they’re the things that matter.
“Remember the time he ….”
“Wasn’t the funny the day we ….”
“I loved how he always ….”
Ultimately, when your time is up, it turns out that what was important wasn’t the world-changing widget you invented, but the time you lost your boardies in the swimming pool at Aunty Maud’s 70th birthday party and had everyone in hysterics. Like it or not, that’s the story that’s going to bring you immortality – and that’s a good thing!
When you go, when everything is stripped back to bare bones, if you’ve lived a successful life your family is simply going to say: “We loved him, and he made us laugh.”
It’s taken me a while to be ready to do this, but I think now is the time. For Lucas, here is the eulogy I wrote for my brother.
To make this public has been a bit of a difficult decision. I feel honour-bound to say that as a devout Christian, my brother would not approve of this blog or the causes I support on it. I was always very cranky when he tried to drag me into his ‘schemes’ and I want to be careful not to draw him into mine.
So, to draw a respectful ‘distance’ between him and my activism, and to protect the privacy of his family I’ve removed identifying names from the eulogy. Otherwise, it’s pretty much as it was spoken at his funeral.
Maybe it will help my dear friend Lucas, or maybe someone else, realise that what changes the world is not grand schemes and achievements, but little people, just like us, living and loving and learning and, most importantly, laughing together.
The greatest legacy that anyone can leave is joy.
Neither money, nor great works, nor brilliant inventions are a proper measure of a person’s worth.
When we come to the end of our lives, our value will be measured, not by our professional or material success, but by the love and the laughter we brought to the world.
Those are gifts which are not extinguished by death.
Joy is eternal. When a truly fine human being dies, they live on in the smiles and laughter their memory brings to all who knew them.
By this measure, my brother, was a truly fine human being .
My brother was a seeker. He was always seeking “success” and I think he always felt it eluded him. Our mother summed it up in a letter she wrote to him some years ago:
“My tender, loving, son. I like you because you are so vulnerable. You care for the whole human race and find it difficult to accept there are those who are less than perfect.
Like your dad, you love to be loved and you return that love a thousand-fold. I see the joy and pride your family brings to you and I know you are deeply devoted to them.
Although you have two married sons, to me, you are still my ‘little one’ who needs all the love and comfort life can bring.
You struggle so hard to find what you term ‘success’, but don’t realize you have gained this already as a wonderful, caring human being.”
I know his family will agree that, for all his seeking, my brother already had all the success that matters:
A loving wife whose devotion and care for him through some very difficult times, went far beyond the call of duty.
Two fine sons who, following his example, are devoted to their wives and children.
Two beautiful grandchildren, who will grow up with their own wonderful memories of times spent with Grandad.
And parents and siblings who adored him.
That kind of success is precious and rare. And the legacy of my brother’s success is the love and laughter which his memory brings to us.
Mum smiles when she remembers him as a little boy.
She says, “He loved to help me at home and would regularly clean out the kitchen cupboards. The trouble was, he was so meticulous, it would take most of the day. After about half an hour he would say, “Cup of tea, Mummy?” and we’d sit and have our tea and cake and rest a while.
She also smiles tenderly when she remembers how sensitive he was. She says, “I would suddenly realize things were too quiet and I’d think, “Where is he?” After a hunt, I’d find him fast asleep rolled up in the mosquito net at the back of his bed.”
Mum says, “Obviously I’d said something to upset him and he’d hidden away to ‘lick his wounds’. But a cuddle and a kiss soon fixed everything.”
Mum also recalls that, after my brother was posted to Western Australia for his navy training, she received a telegram saying:
“Starving! Please send bread pudding!” (a family favourite).
She made the pudding and wrapped it up but she says, “When I paid the postage, I realized it would nearly have been cheaper to fly over with it myself than to pay the cost of sending a 4 kilo pudding by airmail from AirlieBeach to Western Australia!”
Perhaps the memory which most encapsulates my brother’s humour, endearing personality and ability to deal with adversity is the story of the haircut.
Feeling the heat in Darwin, my 14 year old brother took himself off to the barber and asked for a trim. The villainous barber spun the chair around from the mirrors and gave him a crew-cut. He was horrified when he saw himself in the mirror. He slunk home, donned a baseball cap and curled up on the sofa in a fetal position, refusing to speak to anyone.
After a while, though, he started to see the funny side of it and, with the twinkle back in his eye, he removed his cap, pulled a face like a monkey, let his arms hang loose, and began loping around the living room, chattering and shrieking like a chimpanzee. Poor thing! He received monkey themed birthday cards for the rest of his life. His boys even bought him a pair of gorilla slippers with eyes that lit up when he walked – and he wore them!
As a little girl, my brother was always by my side. In Darwin, he famously took me out for a Sunday walk in my very best dress. When we had not returned after an hour or two, Mum and Dad went looking for us – and found us picking over rubbish, looking for treasures, at the local tip.
When he was diagnosed with brain cancer his strength and humour helped us all cope. I remember him showing us a sketch that his doctor had done to show him where the tumour was in relation to his brain. There had been some additions to the sketch, though – his oldest son had got hold of it, added ears and a tail and transformed it into a drawing of a mouse. He thought that was hilarious.
Just last year, he arrived at our Christmas-in-winter celebration with a fake tattoo on his head, drawn by his son, featuring a train-track inked over his surgical scar, complete with a jaunty train and the words, Polar Express.
During my last conversation with my brother, we talked about all the silly things we’d done together and he said, “We were always the best of friends.”
He is gone now, but what is important will never change. I will still love him, and he will still make me laugh. That is his legacy.
I hope when I go – and when you go – love and laughter will be the gifts we leave behind. And what’s more, to his children and grand-children – let your memories of him remind you of the real meaning of life, and live your lives in pursuit of what is really important. When you die, if people talk about how much love and joy you brought to their lives, you have done your job. You, like him, will have left the world a better place, and your life, like his, will have been a success.
Wow. That was beautiful. Thanks for sharing something so personal.
Chrys I have no words. That’s so beautiful, and your message is received. I DO feel that I’m not doing enough with my life to help the huge percentage of the human population who live in poverty or fear, but it’s not success I pine for.
I’m touched by your gesture. Thank you so much. xo
Yes, I’ve been thinking about the word ‘success’ and wondering what would be better. Achievement, accomplishment? ‘Success’ implies that ego is the driving factor, and I do think that’s too simplistic. One’s feeling of inadequacy may well be driven by altruistic rather than egotistic feelings – but I think the answer is the same.
In the ‘machinery’ that makes the world better we see the big wheels like Bill Gates churning away and moving things in the right direction (I’m talking about his charity work, here, of course). What we don’t see are all the ‘cogs’ that help that wheel to turn. The thing is, most of us are cogs, not wheels. We don’t look anywhere near so impressive, but without us, the wheels wouldn’t turn.
Another useful way I’ve found to look at my ‘contribution’ is as a pebble causing ripples. Maybe if I do one good thing, or say one wise thing, there’ll be a flow-on effect. The fact that I’ll never know how that one act was magnified doesn’t mean I didn’t have an impact.
Or maybe, if we want to get all ‘organic’ about our view of life, we can think of ‘the universe’ (if you like) as a single organism and we, as ‘cell-like’ objects within it. Consider, we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the cells in our body; individually, they seem unimportant. Who’d miss a single cell? What ‘value’ does it have? As long as our cells are all doing what they’re supposed to do (working for ‘the good of the personal ‘universe’ that is ‘you’) we can dismiss them as relatively unimportant. But, when they become cancerous and that cancer spreads to other cells, it can destroy the whole organism. That’s when we really have to sit up and take notice.
When a person does something wonderful, we don’t think of all the cells that have to do their jobs to make them capable of that wonderful act. Similarly, when the world changes for the better, we don’t stop to think it wasn’t one person or one organisation that effected such monumental change, it was all of us, just doing our own small thing to create the environment in which that global change could happen.
It turns out that there’s a lot of value to the universe in just being a ‘healthy cell’.And, when you see what just one black, unhealthy cell can do – you begin to realise that even if you do nothing else, there’s a lot of value in just not being toxic.
You’re absolutely right that I need to redefine how I measure my worth. I’ve been placing so much emphasis upon how I perceive others to value me, but in reality how could I ever know that? The very fact that you took the time to write this shows that you care and value me.
I seem to have this built-in insecurity about whether I matter to the people who are important to me, or anyone. It drives me to constantly tell people that what they did made a difference, that they are appreciated.
I think I’d have liked your brother very much.
I’m goin to be thinking about this all day. Thank you *hugs*.
Great bit of work, Chrys. The boy has needed a bit of a boost and some stuff to think about. Keep working at it Lucas, mate. You are not, and never will be alone.
I started reading this post in a perfectly placid mood, and by the end of it I was emotional, teary and moved. Such beautiful words, and such a truth behind it that’s so often forgotten. Important to put these things into perspective. Well done, Chrys.
Such an amazing, thoughtful and inspiring post Chrys – thank you. We are right alongside you in wanting to reach out to Lucas and let him know how important and valued he is to so many people for so many different reasons (and for sone, no reason at all – just because).
I too lost a close relative (step-sister) to brain cancer 2 months ago and you were spot on about the things one tends to remember after a loved one has passed. “Success” and “wealth” have absolutely nothing to do with a bank account, a job or material possessions. At my step-sister’s funeral I was delighted and awestruck at the number of people she touched just for being a good friend, a kind neighbour, a funny co-worker, and a present and supportive wife, daughter and sister. As you touched on earlier this was “all the mundane stuff”, but the “mundane” stuff was also the FABULOUS, human and REAL stuff.
Many of us don’t get OR give acknowledgement for the little (sometimes tiny) things that encourage, inspire, help and otherwise make a tiny difference in someone else’s world – but they the things that are remembered and matter at the end of the day.
And for Lucas please keep fighting – your perception of self worth may be shaky right now, but our view is freakin’ crystal and there ARE better days and weeks ahead for you…see there…no over THERE…yep that’s the one.
Hugs all around
Today I’ve been in the best place I’ve been for a while, because of this and the affect it had on me this morning. I can’t express how much I appreciate all of you – you’re awesome. 🙂
Thank you. I’ve been having a rough time recently, trying to finish a big project, yet still make time for my disabled child and throw a party for my other child that is graduating. I was feeling “look I have to do this project, it’s important!”. I rather forgot that the “important” work I do won’t be the physical things I leave behind, but the memories. Thank you.
Thank you, Kitty. Yep! The memories we make are like deposits in the bank of immortality. In 10 years time, probably in 2 years time, you won’t even remember that ‘important project’ and your child certainly won’t. Hmmm, come to think of it, I could do well to take some of my own advice. Step AWAY from the computer, Chrys and spend some time with your Mum! 😉
The rich are usually parasites, I have no ambition to join their ranks. If you life a life based on empathy and compassion for your fellow man, I believe that in the end that is all that most of us can do. Put our hands up for what is morally correct and benefits the widest number of our fellow Aussies, and reject things that come under the heading of greed and selfishness.
I think we should all question our lives and our value to society but I many of us need to find a different set of values to judge ourselves by.
We are bombarded by messages saying “Be rich, be famous, be successful” when life is often more like a Leunig cartoon than a superhero comic.
We need to value the small as well as the larger.
Great article Chrys
This is getting scary. You’ve given me two compliments this week. Do you know something about my health I don’t? 😉
Why is this stupid thing calling me g2-5bba245eb6db01d36e28de6648a6336a ?
You may call yourself ‘Doug’ as much as you wish, but you’ll always be “g2-5bba245eb6db01d36e28de6648a6336a ?” to me. Hug! (Can I call you g2 for short?)
Thanks, Chrys. What a beautiful tribute to someone who sounds like a beautiful man in spite of himself.
Life has little to offer low income workers, the mundane repetition of yesterday without even the relief of an occasional holiday as income does not permit it. The only positive aspect is that our sons and daughters may break out of the poverty trap and make a life for themselves.
Chrys – what an absolutely beautiful and tear-rendering tribute to your brother.
(now it’s a few minutes later …. because I’m still speechless and teary after reading it ……)
I’m a 15 year survivor of cancer and a rare neurological disease and I found your blog today via the Punch article. I’ve done the whole “meaning” and purpose of life and can add something to what you’ve said .. ……
Some people like me are limited in what they can do for others because we are housebound.
After spending a few months and much soul-searching and googling I realised that the happiest people in life are those that
– are passionate about something in their lives
– have a life purpose.
Well ….. I’m passionate about a few things and one of them is the legalistion of VE. So I decided that if I actually made that my life purpose then I’d be very happy.
Ever since I’ve made that decision I don’t have the same questioning thoughts about life, the purpose of life and related things. I’m actually a lot happier about that part of my life.
Don’t get me wrong ….. I’m still unhappy about many things, including the 15-odd medical problems and especially the loneliness that comes with being largely housebound and even unable to use the computer much. And being single and childfree I don’t even have any “legacies” or children to nurture and leave a “mark” on this world.
Hope this all makes sense!! Feel free to email me if you’d like ….. 🙂
Thank you Yolanda. How wonderful that, even in adversity (or perhaps because of it) you’ve found your ‘mission’ in life. It’s something it’s taken me a very long time to find, too. It’s not just depression that robs us of our feeling of ‘self-worth’, your post reminds us that physical illness can also take away those things that made us feel ‘worthwhile’. I remember when I was particularly ill with depression and able to do very little at all. I complained to my therapist that I felt ‘useless’ and ‘lazy’ for just sleeping and reading all day. He replied, “Ah, but you’re not being lazy, you’re working VERY hard at getting better.”
That really struck home with me. At that time my ‘job’ was to get better – not to save the world! Saving the world could wait until later.
DWD is such an important cause and I know they need all the help they can get. It’s not like there isn’t enormous interest and support – it’s just that the opposition of the churches, especially the Roman Catholic Church is enormous. It takes a lot of money and resources to combat an organisation with unspeakable wealth and very little regard for the truth.
It’s nice that you’ve found our little ‘community’ here and I hope you’ll visit often.
Please feel free to friend me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter at @Chrys_Stevenson or contact me at email@example.com
I’ll be visiting your state next week, but sadly, it seems you live a little far out for me to visit.