Many years ago, while at university, one of my professors required that his students write their own obituary. He told us that by writing our obits, we would begin to truly appreciate ourselves and others as individual human beings with innate worth and lasting value. He also said that until we stood back and looked at ourselves as a stranger would see us, we could never really know who we are.
Like most college students, we went along with the program as outlined and did as we’d been instructed. The lesson had interesting consequences for me along the way. I doubt any of us ever forgot what we learned from it.
Trying to look at your image in the mirror, as a stranger would, isn’t an easy task. Self-perception is always influenced by experience and what others have told you of their observations and expectations for you. The physical aspects that have always seemed flawed, or perfect, or questionable are your first impressions.
When you go past the physical to past experience, deeds, and failures with their requisite successes, you dwell on those bits that were less than perfect, less than desirable. Accepting the flawed episodes from a past that can’t be changed is a timely process. Without that acceptance, the successes ring as hollow and lifeless. Small indiscretions overpower small kindnesses. Praise is mitigated by remembered slights. And the cycle continues.
The act of writing one’s personal obituary allows for reflection on the overall picture of a person’s life—yours. The fact is that an obituary is merely a personal profile. It places the person within the framework of their own history.
Family and friends come to the foreground, along with major accomplishments within the person’s life. It’s not concerned with failures, but with successes, relationships, and contributions. It concentrates on those areas of one’s life that reflect the spirit and philosophy of the person.
The amount of detail held within the paragraphs that encompass a person’s life story depends on the purpose of the writer. Make no mistake; the obituary is a telling of a person’s profile or life story in miniature. It can celebrate that life, magnify it, examine it, whatever the writer wishes to convey. It can also bring to light the otherwise unknown deeds of a person, secrets held by those who knew her best.
By the time I finished my assignment, I’d reaffirmed several key points about myself. I’d come away with an acknowledgement of those relationships which mattered the most to me and knew why they did so. My failures up to that point had been assessed and laid to rest. I’d owned all of them, some for the first time, and they could no longer haunt me.
Successes, some of them never properly acknowledged, came to the foreground. I’d never before thought of those times I’d been in a rescue situation as successes. My actions had been necessary to keep another from greater harm. I’d not categorized them as anything other than being in the right place at the right time.
The exercise became a kind of “It’s a Wonderful Life” scenario. When approached that way, failures meant nothing, had no value. Only successes counted, and few, if any, of those for me had anything to do with money or personal gain.
I’ll always thank that professor for that assignment. The lesson stuck. I’ve decided, in lieu of an annual goals listing, I’ll write a new obit each January as an evaluation of the previous year. I’ll think of it as a laying to rest of the past and a celebration of my life during that time.
I challenge each reader to take on the task of writing their personal obituary, not as something morbid and unwholesome, but as a personal profile and life story in miniature. I can’t guarantee that you’ll come away with the same type of positive reaction I did. I can only tell you that you won’t look at your life the same afterwards.
Let me know how your experience of this exercise goes. I’m interested to know if you found it as illuminating and cleansing as I did.