We have previously discussed the importance of articulating our wishes for our own care, particularly in the form of an advanced medical directive. An important part of that process is for us to think through what gives us joy, comfort, and satisfaction. How can we still maintain quality of life when our abilities start to become limited? And how can we plan now to maintain that quality of life in the future?
We may find that the answer to this question can change in ways that surprise us. When we are younger and healthy, we might not be able to imagine enjoying life without having the full strength of our minds and bodies. But I have found that this perspective can change: We can find new ways to enjoy the gifts of life — simple pleasures, the love and companionship of family and friends — in a way that makes everything worthwhile.
I once heard an anecdote about a woman whose father was a distinguished professor. His life had been dedicated to teaching, books, and the joys of the intellect. When he developed a condition that was gradually starting to rob him of his mind, she sat down with him and asked him, not in so many words, when he would feel that life was no longer worth living. She fully expected him to say that life without books was no life at all. But what he said instead shocked her. “You know,” he said, “as long as I can watch football and eat ice cream, I think I’d like to give it a shot.” As life changes, our sense of joy and pleasure in even the smallest things can change as well.
The Talmud offers some pithy advice about how one should live his or her life. Aseh devarim lifnei mitasecha: Do things [that will be told over] before your coffin, at your funeral. What do you want them to say in your eulogy?
Attending a funeral can be one of life’s most edifying experiences. It is a time when we realize that all those pursuits that seem so important now are not what anyone will remember about us. Professional accomplishments are suddenly less meaningful than the kind words we had for our colleagues. Our acquisition of things is no longer relevant; our acquisition of love and friendships is what lasts. We are not measured by the challenges we have had but by the strength with which we have dealt with them.
Just last week, I went to see a family whose husband and father had only a few hours to live. Before saying the traditional end-of-life prayers with them, I asked if anyone wanted to share thoughts or feelings. It was like tapping a well. Out came recollections about his devotion to his synagogue, about his love for Israel and how much he looked forward to his annual visits there. Out came descriptions of him as a peacemaker, someone who never had an unkind word to say about anybody; if he couldn’t say something kind, he would say nothing. After spending 45 minutes with them, I had no idea what he did for a living, whether he was rich or poor, or even where he had grown up. But I understood exactly who he was.
How would we like to be remembered? If we were sitting in the audience for our own funeral, what would we like to hear? We might discover that what occupies our attention today will be forgotten by then. We may find that the grace with which we face our difficulties will be remembered long after the difficulties have been forgotten.
We have written a little bit about leaving a legacy for our children by sharing our story and our values. Asking ourselves what makes a good life is also part of determining our legacy. It might be our most important gift to those we love — and to ourselves.
By Rabbi Daniel Rose
Rabbi Daniel Rose is the rabbi for Jewish Hospice Services for Seasons Hospice and Palliative Care. He is also the assistant rabbi at Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation in Baltimore.