The meaning of life
by Sunny Schlenger
In 1981, my dad suffered a massive heart attack. He was only 58 at the time and was given one in 100 odds of survival. The doctors said that the critical factor would be his will to live, but we knew that might be a problem once he found out that he would no longer be able to run his retail shoe store, which had been the consuming focus of his life. Somehow he made it through 69 days in the hospital and was sent home depressed and still not knowing if he would be strong enough to get through the next several months.
As the weeks went by and his health improved enough for feelings of boredom to set in, I suggested that he keep a journal. He had always enjoyed writing, but I added a little twist. I gave him a pen with two colors, red and green, and told him to write in red ink when he felt down or angry and green when he felt more positive. Over the next six months, he wrote. In the beginning his entries were mostly in red, but gradually the little oases of green grew and spread to the point where he could actually see himself getting better.
The last entry was made on the first day he was able to go out and eat at a restaurant. He wrote to me, “Learning to live ‘in a green state of mind’ has made a powerful difference in my life. I now look for ways to feel good and know that when I do, I’m better able to deal with whatever’s coming my way.”
It was wonderful to watch the transformation in my father’s outlook on life. In three years he went from total self-absorption to displaying such community spirit that the county executive in Baltimore, Maryland publicly recognized his volunteer efforts by naming a special day in his honor.
My dad made the choice to try out a completely different kind of life than he had lived before. You might say, “What choice did he have? He became disabled.” But he could have made other choices. He could have ignored the doctors’ orders; gone back to his store and had another, most likely fatal heart attack. Or he could have stayed in the house, feeling angry or overwhelmed by the cards that had been dealt him, and done nothing. But he made the decision to look at what he could do given his limitations, and ended up helping himself by helping hundreds of others.
Life is tenuous; it’s not the best idea to go through your days looking over your shoulder, waiting for fate to catch up to you. It’s so much better to make the best of what you have, whether your life is to be the equivalent of a short story or a 20-chapter novel.
And no matter what the length of your life, I’m a huge advocate of leaving something behind to shed light on your journey – reminiscences and insights that only you can share.
I’m teaching a class now entitled “Creating Your Personal Legacy.” The participants range in age from 60 to 87 and they’re motivated by a desire to better understand the meaning of their lives so that they can share themselves with the generations to come. (They’re also motivated by a fear, when they’re gone, of leaving family and friends with years of accumulated, miscellaneous stuff.)
I’ve told them about my feelings of regret that I will never know much about my great-grandparents except through the shadowy memories of my parents, and the names and dates of birth and death on the family tree. I look at the grainy photographs and wonder, among other things, what it felt like to first come to the U.S. in the 1800s. I was determined to leave my own children with more solid remembrances of their great-grandparents and made audio recordings of them a few years before they passed away. I’m so happy to still be able to hear the cadence of their voices – the sounds of laughing, singing, sighing, along with their individual remembrances.
Now my parents are gone as well. There are so many questions I wished that I had asked them! Some of the things they left behind provide clues to their thoughts, such as my father’s journal from the days of his recovery. But I still would have loved to know more. What would they have said about the meaning of their lives? What did they learn? What advice would they pass along to their great-grandchildren yet to come?
The total meaning of life – our own life – may be too broad to see in a single lifetime. But we can share what makes it meaningful to us and thereby keep that light burning brightly for others.
“When an elder dies, it’s as if an entire library burns down.” – African proverb