How to Leave the Impression of a Lifetime


A few summers ago, a friend of mine died in a boating accident. I didn't know him for long. We trained together in jiu-jitsu in South Amboy, New Jersey. I remember he was strong. He had curly, blond hair and a tattoo on his shin immortalizing his time volunteering to fight fires. And he was always grateful and shook my hand at the end of every class. 

I was sad when he was gone but glad to know I was able to know him. For a brief time. 

The details were all I had left and the details became all that mattered.

It made me think of this little psychological exercise of thinking of your own funeral to reflect on your life. Eric Barker explains it through the words of Richard Wiseman's excellent book 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:

"It's your funeral. After a long life, the end has come. What do you want the people who love you to be saying about you? About what you accomplished? About the difference you made in their lives?

Got a few thoughts? Congratulations, you now have long-term goals. Work backwards and make those things happen."

The fact of the matter is you're changing lives. It's easy to think our lives need to be action-adventure movies or romance novels, but when we consider the people we hold most dear, we feel a more honest truth. It's not about us, it's about what we give.

Oliver Sacks is more confronted with this idea than ever before. The quirky neurologist is dying.

With the end nearer than ever, Sacks wrote an Opinions piece for The New York Times expressing his thoughts on his life up until now and his remaining days here:

"Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well)."

It's easy to see here everything that matters to Sacks. Every word feels perfectly selected and "silliness" brings a smile to my face. What I know best of Oliver Sacks is from his additions to the Radiolab podcast. The stories he tells never disappoint, from his ritualistic eating to avoid decision fatigue to his apologizing to mirrors thinking it was another man. They even featured him in a Short called Happy Birthday, Good Dr. Sacks when he turned 80.

What makes me so sad about his short, remaining time is that he reminds me of what I want to be in my life. I want to add something to this world in an intelligent and weird way. And enrich the lives of people I may never meet. That's what Sacks has done for me. I probably won't make it to his funeral and I'm not sure I'll even be able to talk to him before he goes, but he has certainly given something to me that's invaluable.

And that's the point of it all. Whether we're passing away or moving on, we're always making impressions. Almost every minute. People remember things about you that you don't even remember yourself - some good and some bad. 

In the past year, I've had one of my best friends and his girlfriend move to San Francisco. In one short week, another will head out for Seattle. This summer, a third will go to San Diego. We've had such great times, each of us, together, and I can't help but feel ambivalent about it. You always want the best for the people around you and I've tried my best, like a Buddhist monk, to not hold too tight to them staying in one spot, near me. And then when I can do that so well, I wonder if I have it all wrong. Should I be emotional about this? Should I be clinging tighter? What's the big idea!?

And all I can do is surrender to that universal truth of change. We ebb and we flow. Memories are made and we move on.

It becomes all the more important what we do every day. It's hard to know for sure what people will remember of you, but keeping it as knowledge that they could remember anything should encourage you to do your best, however you define it.

You don't even have to think that much about it if you're asking yourself the right questions. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke might have said it best:

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Live with the best intentions and you just might deliver the best impressions.