How Will Each of Us Be Remembered?
Sudden death of the author's mother sparred introspection about his own life and legacy
I’ll never forget the call.
It was 1989, and like most college students, I spent winter break in Florida looking for some sun. Stepping off the airplane and being greeted by a burst of warm air was the best. As I entered the terminal, I had the added benefit of being greeted by my maternal grandparents, who lived in North Miami Beach. Lounging at the pool, going on walks with them, or eating out, the experience was a wonderful way to decompress after an intense period of finals.
“How can I lead a more fulfilling and meaningful life?”
Although I had big-brother responsibilities as the oldest of six children, life was great and my worries were minimal. That warm Wednesday in January, my grandparents and I spent the morning at the pool. We were just coming back when we received a call that would change my life forever: My mother had suffered a brain aneurysm.
She was just 44 years old. How could this be happening? Just yesterday we spoke, she laughed, and now, within 48 hours, she’d passed away. She left her parents, a husband, and six children, ages 21 to eight, to mourn her loss.
My world — our world — was turned upside down in an instant. I didn’t know how I could go on. My mother was my rock and source of strength. How could it be that she was no longer here?
Although the pain of my mother’s absence will never disappear, I’ve realized that the call I received more than 25 years ago has evolved into a calling.
Her passing instilled within me an acute awareness of the fragility of life and the gift of every day. I live with a heightened sense of urgency to realize my divine potential and to do my utmost every day to harness all of my energy and talents to help other people realize their potential as well.
In the past 20 years, I’ve come to appreciate that my personal awakening motivates me, defines me, and guides me to lead a life of meaning and impact. Through this experience, I discovered I’m leading my life with greater passion and purpose. Rather than experiencing life in a casual way — I’m driven to maximize every moment.
In truth, almost everyone experiences such an awakening in their lives.
There’s a moment for all of us when we experience a wake-up call: a moment when the terra firma beneath the normal ebb and flow of life is shaken or stirred. You might call it an inner earthquake. For some it may, God forbid, be a death in the family or a personal illness. For others it may be an awakening due to the birth of a child or grandchild, or a wedding, a recent economic upheaval, the loss of a job, or challenges at work.
When we experience a brush with our own mortality, we ask ourselves, “How can I lead a more fulfilling and meaningful life?” We want more out of life. The most poignant expression of this deep-seated desire emerges at a funeral when we are confronted with our own mortality.
For a brief time, we hear about the life of another person — what this person loved, who they touched, what they lived for, who they influenced, how they’ll live on. As we leave the funeral, we ask ourselves, “How will I be remembered?” We may be reminded of the importance of family and pledge more time with our own or reexamine our friendships or the infinite value of a good name.
But by the end of the day, the awakening dissipates or becomes dormant, only to reemerge at another funeral or life-altering event, when, once again, we ask ourselves whether we’re maximizing our potential and if we’re truly happy and leading a life of impact. At some point, every human being asks himself or herself these questions — but all too often, the inspiration to act on them wafts away like a cloud on a breezy summer day.
You’re blessed with inherent gifts, and your life is trademarked.
Whether rich or poor, black or white, believer or not, the innate desire to lead a life of lasting influence resonates universally. Regardless of your personal belief system, we all possess a deep-rooted desire for a life of purpose.
How do we retain the feeling? How do we organize and orient our lives around our inner aspirations and actions every day?
I wrote the book “What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone? Creating a Life of Legacy” to enable others to unlock that secret and help them develop a vision of their best self — and then to reverse-engineer their lives for how they want to be remembered.
The thirst for pursuing the life of one’s dreams is palpable. We live in a world that moves at lightning speed — and we know that we miss many moments and relationships that should be cherished. People should be able to start living their legacy.
I challenge you to dig deep into your life. You’re blessed with inherent gifts — your life is trademarked. There is only one you. When you become your very best self, not only will you experience more joy, meaning, and happiness, you’ll positively impact your friends and community in ways that will establish your personal legacy.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen has served in the rabbinate for over 20 years and currently is senior rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Connecticut, the largest modern orthodox synagogue in New England. A husband and father of six daughters, he is also co-host with Reverend Greg Doll of the nationally syndicated radio show, “The Rabbi and the Reverend,” on Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. and evenings at 9 p.m. This article is adapted from his book, “What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone? Creating a Life of Legacy.”