How Do You Measure the Worth of a Life?

I’ve attended quite a few funerals in the past few months, and I’ve noticed many details along the way. 

The solemnity of the day. The universality of a loved one. The stories that make up a life are not usually momentous; they are usually small moments of caring and devotion that spark a cherished memory or a life lesson held close.

Some funerals pack in the crowds, the line to hug the family so long that it winds and wends long past the time when the funeral home director would like to call the service to begin. Some are bereft of people, those in attendance stretching out along the pews so as to make it seems as though the room doesn’t echo quite so loudly.

Is the mark of a life the people one touches during his years? The number of people who show up to say they cared about this person, or those around her?

And is every person who passes truly someone of greatness? Or are those the lines rabbis and priests learn to say to comfort the bereaved among us?

At some of the funerals I’ve attended recently, it was apparent how well the clergy on the podium knew the deceased. And at a few others, it was obvious that the presiding clergy knew nothing intimate or personal or specific except what the grieving family members had to say in the moments after their beloved passed and before they could bid a formal farewell.

Whose fault is that? Is it ours, for not really connecting with a community during our lifetimes so that when that life ends, we have no authoritative representative to wax nostalgic about the impact we made?

Or is it the fault of those still living, who never took quite enough of an interest in the people outside their convenient cocoon?

These questions are unanswerable but important to ponder. My wakeup call came as I approached my 40th birthday – a time when I realized I wanted my life to matter, to amount to something so much bigger than me, my little house, my little income, my little world.

When Dan and I married, I was so grateful for a second chance at love, it never occurred to me that people would buy us gifts. We held a party to celebrate our joy and pull people we knew into that blissful halo.

So when, after the crowd left, we sat on the family room floor and opened envelopes with money and gift cards, paper bags with bottles of wine and beautiful ceramic bowls, I wept. I never wanted gifts; I only wanted to proclaim to the world how fortunate I felt, and how much I had to give to those who needed something more.

I am so glad for that wakeup call. In our 20s, we are self-focused to the point of exclusion; we down drinks at dark bars, hook up with random attractions, hope for the fairy tale ending somewhere off in a distant future. We work at jobs we loathe or love, leave those for others that promise a step up, a leap into our collective futures.

And then one day it all changes. The waterfall of I-don’t-cares and I-have-forever-in-front-of-me parts like a biblical story and is replaced with a wakeup of varied sorts: a friend’s marriage, a relative’s cancer, a beloved elder relation’s passing. 

The notion that the path we thought we were walking may not be all that wonderful after all.

Or the recognition that our very own choices were infantile indulgences, not wise, mature, adult decisions to create a meaningful life.

At some point, we recognize that we are part of something so much bigger and that has to matter. And if it doesn’t, well, I believe everything does eventually come full-circle. What we give comes back to us. What we grasp too tightly does, too.

There should be a profession for clergy to preside over those who don’t belong to a particular neat and defined community – or those who don’t want to. A person who benevolently, lovingly, presides over the funerals of the people who didn’t mingle much, or kept to their quiet corners for whatever reason.

In the coming days, you’ll be reading about the community I am building, and the spiritual center which I plan to open in a year’s time: Nourish Cafe, the place where anyone can go to have their soul nourished.

A place for people who haven’t found theirs. A welcoming community for spiritual wanderers. A home for anyone and everyone.

But for today, I will bid a fond farewell to a man I never met but whose smile, joking manner and kindness touched quite a few. A man who was “great” in his own way, because we all are great in our very own way, even if that greatness doesn’t get proclaimed from the treetops to the rest of the world.

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