As I get older, I find myself attending funerals a little more often than I’d like. But while I’m sitting there listening to friends and family members speak about special memories they have with their loved one that is gone, I sometimes wonder who would come to my funeral and what they would say. Sometimes people worry about their legacy and how to somehow ensure that they are remembered. Some people do this by donating money to have their name attached to a brick, a bench, or if you’re wealthy, a building. I really have no desire for anything like that. What I wonder is do I matter to anyone?
The most poignant stories I hear at funerals are the ones where people have memories of times where the person gave a helping hand without any expectation of a returned favor or a time that the person made them really happy. I’m not talking about just any happy thought. I mean happiness so intense that the details of that time are a vivid and permanent memory.
When I look back on my life, I see a young girl in school focused mostly on things that I wanted to do for me. When I went to college, I continued to focus on following my interests in engineering with not much thought to the welfare of others. When I finished grad school, I found a good job at General Motors and was focused on buying things like my first car, finding myself a nice place to live, and generally looking for fun things to do. The fact that others around me in the factories and businesses in my city suffered terribly when the automotive business would go through a downward trend only impacted my thoughts in a self-centered way. My convenience was negatively impacted because stores would be closed and boarded up. My safety felt negatively impacted because there were many unemployed people milling around and crime had risen. Eventually, my job was impacted by a downturn but I was able to get a great job in Arizona at Intel Corporation and two years later got married.
If I had passed away shortly after moving to Arizona, I imagine that I would have had a pretty decent crowd at my funeral but their memories would just be stories of fun times we had or the newlywed love that I shared with my husband. But I don’t believe I could say that I really mattered. In short order, memories of me would fade away. The people that had attended my funeral would soon find their memories filled with people and times that really mattered to them.
I recently had a discussion with someone on whether they thought they were a “giver” or a “taker”. What I meant by that is whether he felt he made more decisions based on the needs of others or based on his own needs. At some point, my self-centered viewpoint shifted. I think it started with falling in love and getting married. All of my decisions, small and large, were now not just mine to make. From small things like what to make for dinner to large things like buying a house or having children, my decisions now needed to be discussed and be our decisions. When I had my first child, I remember laying there in the hospital with my daughter laying on my chest thinking that I’d sacrifice myself to save her life if necessary. The shift from “taker” to “giver” was significant at that time. Now that my oldest daughter is 25, I’d say that it drives her crazy when we go out to eat as a family and I don’t order what I want so that everyone else can have more of what they want.
But then I had another child. Before she was one year old, it became clear that she was going to have enormous struggles her whole life. She was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome which is extremely physically disabling, trapping her in a body that won’t do what she wants and even does things she doesn’t want including severe scoliosis, seizures, and constant hand-wringing and hand-mouthing. It also robbed her of her voice which really is a large obstacle for caring for her, keeping her safe, and helping her make friends. As she got older, it became more and more difficult for us to keep our jobs because we were always needing to go to a doctor’s or therapist’s appointment. First my husband became a stay at home Dad and then I had to leave my job as well after her school broke her femurs leaving her unable to even stand. Thankfully, we both were able to put together jobs that allow us to work from home giving us a lot of flexibility during our work days.
I understand that most of you reading this are now thinking about the disaster that fell upon my family. And yes, it was and is very, very difficult. But I think I now matter. Almost everything I do now is to help someone else that is not as fortunate as me. I believe that instead of being 80% “taker” and 20% “giver”, I am now 80% “giver”. Even the 20% that I do for me, which is focused on eating right and staying fit, is so that I can be a “giver” as long as possible. I think I’m a better person and those that know me see me as a good person and someone that they value in their lives.
I sometimes wonder if I would still be an 80% “taker” at this time in my life if I had not had children or if my youngest daughter was not disabled. I sometimes wonder if I would have been happier, less stressed out, and wealthier. I believe I would have been but only in a shallow way. I hope that if I had a life like that, I would have found something else to give me the passion to matter in a deep way. I do forgive myself for the self-centered life I used to lead. I just wasn’t in a place in my life to see that I was a “taker” and I wasn’t mature enough or experienced in life enough to know how to be a “giver”.
When you are ready to give more of yourself to others, look around and really see those around you. Do something that matters.