Bela Bartok’s Simple Philosophy of Life

pouring-light

The conventional question about optimism is whether you see your glass as half-empty or half-full. But let’s look at the same cup differently.

Let’s think of the object as the container of all your capabilities. All your physical skills. All your creative talents and human endowments.

Now turn to the goblet again. Ask not if the glass appears half-empty or half-full of those gifts, but perhaps a more important question:

What will you do with them? What will you do with whatever is inside?

Here is how one person approached the task: Bela Bartok, the 20th-century Hungarian classical composer. He was 64 when he died in 1945, still full of ideas to be put to music paper, not given the life to express them and further enrich us.

The genius regretted it, saying on his death-bed, he had hoped to exit the world with an “empty trunk.” The man might as easily have referred to an empty glass or locker.

His musical being, occupied by what he could yet compose had he “world enough and time,” was still overflowing. The European emigre sought to expend everything on the job of life. Spill the suitcase out. Unpack the riches within.

Since he was born with nothing, Bartok believed he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself and his fellow-man: to share whatever “good” or goods he possessed, to reveal the talents nature bestowed upon him and those he developed.

Bela Bartok, 1927

Bela Bartok, 1927

Creative people often feel chosen. Some consider their craft a “calling” impossible to ignore. They write or perform, not only as a livelihood. Indeed, more than a few sustain their artistic aspirations even though they can’t make a living doing it.

Bartok himself was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment at the time of his death. These people persist out of an “inner necessity.” They cannot do otherwise.

Bartok’s notion is no different than the sports heroes who try to “leave everything on the field,” giving their entire capability to the game. And, while most of us are not inspirational leaders, geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate the most admirable of them: to reach for all we are permitted, work hard, and face challenges instead of running away.

By this standard, a full life would include loving our friends and family passionately and well, seeking always to enrich our knowledge and understanding; and bestow the world with whatever we have to reform it, and us, into something better — to make all our possibilities real, as Bartok hoped.

To choose such a life rejects dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” These seekers refuse self-protectiveness — the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the life of “might have been, if only…”

The master wrote one of his greatest works, the Concerto for Orchestra, while fighting the leukemia killing him.

The rest of us can’t claim the same excuse if we slip away with some part of the best of ourselves held back — at least not yet. Why? Because we enjoy the gift of time.

For some of us, the goal of life seems to be filling our luggage with as many things as possible. Things external. For Bartok, the mission was to empty it of the things internal. Many are torn between the two –- a life of consumption or a life of creation. There is a choice.

To Bartok, the playing field of life awaited his best efforts. His regrets reflected his desire to have done more, not consumed more.

Is there a better philosophy of living?

——-

This post is a reworking of one I published almost eight years ago. The subject of the top photo is a lamp designed by Yeongwoo Kim called Pouring Light.

The Therapeutic Value of Reading

 

If you have been socially-distanced into submission, as many have, you might be reading more than you once did. Have you turned to self-help books, more news articles, history, poetry, novels, or something else?

The decision depends on what your goal is.

Distraction is called for, at least some of the time. Understanding our politics provides another enticement, though “hair on fire” prose of questionable truth won’t find me turning the page. I salute take-home guides to personal problem solving unless they offer you an escape from changing your life by thinking about it alone.

One might categorize writing differently. Sometimes the language of long and short stories is therapeutic in itself. Virginia Woolf’s work comes to mind. Here is a bit from To the Lighthouse:

What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years, the great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead, there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.

The author’s reflections and her lovely way of expressing herself make me wish to know more. She takes me outside of my mind and back again to show me the inside. The author transports me. I am caught in the updraft of her sense and spirit.

Books can make one laugh, too, and good-natured humor at almost any moment has value.

For me, however, most of the time, I’m searching for a new idea, a way of thinking from a perspective I passed over. I don’t require a happy ending, just one I find believable.

I want my eyes to widen, an enlargement of my view of the world, my imagination inspired, my humanity extended. Yes, reading offers this help.

Take a quote from the late Christina Crosby, who wrote of her life after a paralyzing accident of endless residual pain:

In order to live on, I must actively forget the person I was. I am no longer what I once was — yet, come to think of it, neither are you. All of us who live on are not what we were, but are becoming, always becoming.

Yes, I want words like these, arranged to communicate insights just beyond my reach until I read them. I want Dr. Crosby’s eloquence and frankness, the greatness of spirit in her fortitude.

In the end, I want to learn more. I seek enlivenment. The way to this destination requires some amount of disquiet. How is discomfort therapeutic, you ask? Remember, psychotherapy creates a tolerable degree of discomfort, as well. We often must strain and extend ourselves to grow.

The literature for which I search might unsettle me. Do you wonder whether we should bring on more distress in the time of COVID-19?

Franz Kafka created my answer over 100 years ago:

I think we ought to read only the kinds of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.

The not yet world-renowned writer was then 20-years-old.

———-

The first painting is A Beauty Reading by Utagawa Kunisada. Next comes The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden from the National Gallery, London. The photograph was done by luxfon.com/painting. Third in line is a photo of an Old Man Reading a Newspaper Early in the Morning at Bansantapur, Nepal by Bijay Chaurasia. All of these come from Wikimedia Commons.

“The Best Meal I Had All Day” and Other Words of Wisdom

Emmanuel Terry, my Uncle Manny, is remembered by my brothers for something we heard from him whenever he came to dinner.

No matter the food he ate earlier, our gathering lacked completion until he said, “This was the best meal I had all day!” He smiled and we grinned at what became a necessary secular benediction at the evening’s conclusion.

Though we took his words as a joke, we might have better understood them as a true expression of appreciation, a thanksgiving for the feast and comradery of the moment.

Well before such festivities, Mr. Terry endured the Great Depression of the 1930s, psychiatric hospitalization, electroshock treatment, and service overseas in wartime. Late in life, he suffered the death of his wife, my Aunt Nettie. He knew loved ones and joyous reunions should not be taken for granted.

Uncle M. smiled a lot when we were together, drinking in the companionship and enjoying the laughter we all shared. And, yet, I am the inheritor of a few philosophy texts he read. Too bad I never thought to ask him what in those yellowed pages mattered to him.

Did they contribute to his gratitude?

This brings me to a friend (I’ll call him K), who is entering his 75th year on the planet, a bit longer than Manny achieved. On his birthday, the pandemic doing its worst, he wondered what he might wish for beyond the loving expressions of his children and friends.

While talking to his son-in-law a solution evolved. He planned to bestow some small benevolence on someone he didn’t know. But who, how? Close contact with people would risk lives, both his and the other.

K wasn’t deterred.

My buddy realized an acquaintance in another country might be useful in the endeavor. One owns an eatery in a city where bars and restaurants are open. He chose an establishment over 4000 miles away.

This longtime friend placed a call and asked the proprietor to serve a drink to every person in the place. His confidant would charge the tab to K.

The barkeep honored the anonymity desired by the benefactor of all the strangers. Thus the task was done.

My comrade suggested I take some similar action myself. I told him I would and, also write about his random act of kindness.

Perhaps you enjoyed a beer on my friend, but probably not. I’m guessing if he could have fed the world he would have. None of us can.

We can only do our small part.

Like Uncle Manny, K is a wise man and a grateful one.

It is no accident that these characteristics go together.

Such people make us better than we are.

———-

The adults flanking the young man at his bar mitzvah celebration are his Uncle Manny and Aunt Nettie. The gentleman seated at the right is George Fields. Yes, I am the boy in the middle. It was the best meal we had all day.

Wisdom in Common Things

A typical zoo, lots of kids, and two bears. Or is it something more?

Perspective is everything.

We are in Berlin. The time is the early 1930s.

The question becomes, who is behind bars and who is on the outside looking in? The past gives us one answer. The photographer’s subject appears to be German Jews or any people imprisoned within a totalitarian state.

Yet the image provokes us to reflect upon our “point of view.” Do we accept our way of perceiving the world as the only valid one? Do we think twice, look again, reconsider our history, our actions, and the people around us?

The process of psychotherapy demands this on a personal level. Peaceful protesters in the streets also challenge us to recognize conditions we don’t wish to confront. The psychologist and the demonstrator carry the same message. As Rilke wrote, “You must change yourself.”

Counseling should cause the client to alter his frame of reference, clean the mirror he holds to his face, reevaluate whether his approach to life is working. If he does not, he remains like those children in the menagerie, on the wrong side of a high fence. But unlike them, he is incarcerated in a cage of his own making.

Try this photograph:

There’s a bit of a story here. I was on a morning walk. If you inspect the photo you will notice a quarter: a 25 cent piece. I bent to pick it up.

The hard object could not be separated from the walkway’s grip. What caused its fondness for the ground?? I suspect the coin dropped before the cement dried. The metal stuck.

Was it an accident or the result of someone’s plan? With what intention?

Several possibilities come to my mind:

  • to make a permanent mark lasting as long as the sidewalk. A kind of immortality.
  • As an experiment. Imagine the experimenter stationing himself nearby and tabulating how often people awaken to the object and hesitate over it. Or recording how many passersby attempt to dislodge the quarter and for how long.
  • Perhaps a prankster wished to frustrate anyone wishing to put it in his pocket.
  • Did the “two bits” offer philosophical instruction on the question, “how important is money, and what are you willing to do to get some? Break the pavement? Break the law? Where does the dollar fit in your system of values? Will you get on your knees in worship before its streetside alter?”

Here is one last picture to contemplate:

We all carry secrets. Perhaps the boy is sharing one and cautioning nondisclosure. The observer is left to consider how genuine and open we are. Anton Chekhov composed this about a man with a hidden life:

He began to judge others by himself, no longer believing what he saw, and always assuming that the real, the only interesting life of every individual goes on as (if) under cover of night, secretly. Every individual existence revolves around mystery, and perhaps that is the chief reason that all cultivated individuals insist so strongly on the respect due to personal secrets.

One wonders. For some of our friends, even those closest, is the most essential element of their life unknown to us? Might we also be unrevealed to them? If so, what is the cost of our concealed state?

They and we connect the observable dots of words and behavior, hoping we know the whole. Do we harbor shameful moments, episodes of cowardice, a haunted gender complexity? Is a sequestered, buried heart still bleeding, a boxed-up desire locked away, an ancient loss lurking?

Inertia resides in an undisclosed soul, just as stubborn in its stuckness as the 25 cents on my local sidewalk.

Will someone tell the person who left the melded money that there are those who would cherish the other side of the coin? Like the boy’s inner life, we only see half.

Shall I talk to the immovable, rounded copper the next time I pass its way? I’ll read him the Rilke poem about change. You’d think changing would come easily to a piece of change.

—–

The Rilke quotation is the last line from his poem, Archaic Torso of Apollo. The Chekhov quotation comes from his short story, The Lady With the Dog. The first photo is Roman Vishniac’s People Behind Bars.

Thirty-six Righteous People

If you are looking for meaning in life, you could do worse than to consider three dozen people who don’t even know who they are.

The Lamedvavniks are 36 righteous souls whose role in Jewish tradition is to redeem mankind in the eyes of God: by their decency, to compensate for the imperfections of humanity. Their identities are unknown to each other, unknown even to themselves.

Should a Lamedvavnik realize his true purpose and value, he soon dies and his function is taken by another, innocent of the special place he now occupies in the fabric of existence. But for the presence of such precious beings, the Almighty would destroy every human on the globe, as he came close to doing during the Great Flood and at Sodom and Gomorrah.

Each anonymous member of this select group, we are told, is otherwise ordinary. Humility prevents them from any awareness of their uncommon position.

Some religious scholars think the idea of a handful of essential men comes from Genesis, Chapter XVIII:

“And the Lord said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.'”

Whether one believes in the literal truth of this part of our ancient inheritance, perhaps these stories offer guidance. The question thus becomes, where does the example of the Lamedvavniks take us?

Though I’m no theologian or moral philosopher, this tale suggests to me that each of us holds responsibility for the condition of the world and our fellow-man. Rather than saying, “They should do something!” perhaps we should ask, “What can I do?”

The humble Lamedvavniks are doers.

Act or stand aside. Do right. Repair the world of men and women or let others take it where they wish. Is the planet so peachy a place we are guaranteed to survive nicely without any effort on our part?

All I can say is, if you believe that, please pass whatever you’re drinking this way.

—–

The paintings are both by Paul Klee. The first is called, Two Gods. The title of the second is, The Saint of Inner Light.

Knowing Yourself, Then Showing Yourself

Writers are reminded to “write what you know” and “show, not tell.” The instructions apply to fiction, but also pertain to the fact of who we are.

Therapists take the closed-up, armored patient, hoping to help him remove his metal plate covering.

His end goal?

To man up.

Up straight, chest out, eyes forward. Self-confidence and pride manifest themselves in the unspoken declaration, “Here I am.”

One encounters rejection this way, but our compensation is exploration of the world regardless of fear. What acceptance we obtain is less essential, but more often real; not the approval of those fooled by our costume, blinded by the bronze.

Much discussion exists on the subject of self-revelation to others, but a first step prepares you to lower your guard. It was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi over 2500 years ago:

Know Thyself

A dangerous effort? The book of Ecclesiastes warns:

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

We seem to have a conflict here. Humans use rationalization, compartmentalization and four “D” words to keep their minds off troublesome realities: denial, dissociation, distraction, and drugs.

Socrates, another son of Greece, sided with Delphi over Ecclesiastes. The legendary teacher didn’t write, wore dirty clothes, and was sufficiently disclosing of what he stood for that he was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens.”

He led them to question their own beliefs.

The philosopher chose his end over exile because he could only be himself as he wished to be, with his people.

Counselors are friendlier to Socrates than Ecclesiastes in their pursuit of the Delphian truth. They recognize no one can show himself who doesn’t know himself.  Otherwise he displays but half — the fragment of which he is aware.

The hearing impaired who are clueless to their deficiency resemble those without self-knowledge. Such men live in a world of sound, but perceive only a segment of it. The undiscovered portion leaves no evidence of absence, no apology in the form of a regretful RSVP.

But Ecclesiastes was no fool. Fearless self-insight exacts a fearful price. Once you realize how you hurt another, the recognition bleeds you. You bleed in the knowledge of who you have been, how you harmed. To the good, now you can improve, apologize. Permission for do-overs, however, is a rare, “sometimes thing.” The damaged don’t always stick around.

Nor does self-awareness recover lost time. Those who wait for aged parents to acknowledge their failure, encounter people for whom internal vision would come with an unacceptable redefinition of themselves.

Fifty-years of error cannot be borne except by the hearty in body and mind. Indeed, all of us of whatever age want to turn from the mirror’s truth, claim distortion, and blame the glass.

A splendid blogger, Clara Bridges, tells us, “I read and write poetry for myself, not for others, and in both cases the revelation is primarily of myself, to myself.”

Clara recognizes the power of journaling, not just expressive and therapeutic, but as a tool for piercing the layers of cloaking armor we wear in our everyday version of Halloween.

Bronze plate is an inflexible thing. Clanging hardware is cumbersome and noisy. All grace disappears, the wearer’s voice drowned out by the dissonance.

A Dance of Seven Veils calls to us. The music is seductive if you are open to hearing it and brave enough. Adding to Delphi’s admonition, it sings, “Know thyself, then show thyself,” one dropped veil at a time.

You partner with yourself in the first dance, others are invited later.

Who knew counselors offer dance lessons?

—–

The first image is Constance Talmadge, Head and Shoulders Portrait,1921, Library of Congress. The second is called, Looking in the Mirror, taken in Surmi, Tulgit, (a small village in Ethiopia) by Rod Waddington, 2014. Both are sourced from Wikiimedia Commons.

A Therapist’s Heroes

I met a personal hero in my early 30s. A dim recording of our 40-year-old 40-minutes still exists.

My life has been lucky, in part, because of unexpected encounters such as this, and for other reasons, too. I grew up in a time when the world of little boys overflowed with heroic TV and movie figures. Most displayed physical bravery, but there was right in what they stood for: as the Superman television series told it, “truth, justice, and the American Way.”

I’m not the only serious kid who took the message seriously. Our fathers fought in World War II and Korea. Duty and sacrifice were expected of us, as well. The boundaries of acceptable behavior were clearer then. Now exhibitionism and self-congratulations — characteristics once frowned upon — squirm and twist themselves into chest-beating greatness. Meaningful apology is absent in much of public life.

We choose our heroes uncritically as kids. Most parents bask for a while in the admiring gaze of their children. Adulthood brings a more nuanced view. Today’s media offer few people with the purity of The Rifleman, Paladin, and The Lone Ranger — the principled Westerners my generation of boys watched in the ’50s and ’60s.

That world, as it enlarged, compromised us all and we compromised ourselves. Some of this is inescapable and doesn’t involve the loss of your soul. Still, there are things I wish I hadn’t done, adult times when I wasn’t my best self. Regarding other actions and inactions, I’ve made a quiet peace; grateful for the knowledge, humility, and experience the shortfalls brought me. Not to excuse moments of cruelty, failing resolve, or license, but as I look around the globe I notice some company. So it is that I try to do better.

I wonder if we are poorer for the missing simplicity of the remarkable characters TV paraded past the mid-twentieth-century optic nerves of my generation, as we search today’s narrow daily world for models in matters of living.

*****

Who was the hero who greeted me on March 18, 1978? A gorgeous man and a great one. Not outsized, as POW John McCain was, because of refusing a chance to free himself from continuing torture. Preferential treatment and desertion of his comrades meant cowardice, and the airman suffered for his steadfast valor.

Carlo Maria Giulini, instead, was a symphony conductor/hero, who also knew what mattered. He exemplified virtue in action and his art. Unlike Giulini, few of us are both good and great, a combination irresistible to his admirers.

Integrity is a always a pricey thing. The Italian musician said no to rather different opportunities than the combat pilot: promotion of his career and financial gain because he convinced himself full readiness to honor men like Bach and Tchaikovsky was more important.

The Maestro believed love for the music was not sufficient, but required understanding of the intention of every note on the page. Only upon fulfillment of both demands did he permit his private search for beauty to become public in performance. Years would go by even if it meant — as it did — never leading compositions he loved. “I’d rather be three years too late, than three minutes too soon,” he said. Here was a gentle man made of steel.

*****

We lost an extraordinary person in John McCain on August 25, 2018, a statesman saluted by sham mourners whose expensive clothing disguises a lack of character, and others who recognize what they lost and attempt to improve themselves because of his example.

Late in life, McCain might have uttered the words Tennyson put in the mouth of the aged Ulysses to his surviving companions of the Trojan War, before they embarked on their final voyage:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

John McCain’s daughter Meghan gave a distinguished eulogy. Such sadness is common enough at funerals, but not by itself a reason to view it. Listen to her devotion and private knowledge of the Senator who was her dad, her eloquence in describing what made him special and necessary. Those qualities compel our attention and respect as a kind of civic duty.

Such men as the congressman lift us by the standard they set. Imperfect, but noble. They reach beyond themselves in service of a greater cause. The best among us do not rate self-interest as the dominating value in their lives.

Here is her speech. I hope you will watch and try to do better, as we all must if our world and that of our children and grandchildren is to be better:

——

The top photo is of Carlo Maria Giulini. The second image is from an Interview with John McCain done on April 24, 1973. Thomas J. O’Halloran was the photographer. It comes from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons.

The Voice of a Therapist: An Interview with Dr. Gerald Stein

When you get old enough, survival becomes a kind of distinction. I was therefore not surprised when my interview by Masters in Counseling was called, Career Longevity in Psychotherapy with Dr. Gerald Stein. For those who would like to know how I sound, here is a chance to find out what this 70-plus-personage knows about that and several other topics; from — pardon me — the horse’s mouth.

If you listen, you will hear my kind interviewer Megan Hawksworth, herself a therapist, tell you why she claims I’m worth attention. My response to her request for “words of wisdom” was, “I have lots of words, but I’m not sure how many of them are wise.” Later however — my brain stirring — I asked myself, “How have I come to know whatever it is I know (or think I know) beyond what I learned in school?”

Well, maybe the most important way was being open to new ideas. A conversation shouldn’t always be about defending yourself or trying to win, but listening and evaluating what the other says. Not to apologize, not to defer, but to enter regions beyond one’s imagination and experience; to be enlarged by such gifted souls as still walk the earth. I can say I prefer the company of people who possess ideas I’ve not considered to those who think as I do or live as I do.

Getting “banged-up” also contributed to my enlightenment. Not just physical dings, and dents, and divots; surgeries and sedation and stitches.

I’ve strived and failed. I’ve tried and triumphed. Once I won a battle and lost some friends who opposed me. I’ve been cheated of lots of money. I gave away plenty, too. I helped a philanthropy I started with friends raise funds. My heart has been broken by a few lovely women and I’ve broken a few hearts.

What might be worse? Breaking your love’s heart and your own simultaneously. It happens.

Are those words of wisdom? If you think so, here are 10 more:

  • Over time I learned to give sentiments a prominent place beside clarity of thought: laughter and tears, both, but love above all.
  • Disappointment and loss are the forge of character, but only if you pass beneath and beyond the blacksmith’s hammer without losing your faith in the promise of life.
  • There are things I cannot possibly convey to you unless you’ve lived some version of the same event. Only music might come close to communicating them.
  • Much as I am a hard guy sometimes, kindness is essential and in shorter supply than macho competition; and therefore, more precious.
  • I know I will never know everything, though I try.
  • Life moves too fast to keep up with all that is important. How do we know what is important? Pay attention, at least, to the words of William Bruce Cameron:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

  • While the probable is most likely to occur, many improbable things will happen in any life. Be grateful for the ones that give you joy. And perhaps, if you realize your luck could have been otherwise, disperse your good fortune to others by paying it forward.
  • Whatever wisdom I own today applies more to the present version of myself than the 30 or 50-year-old models. I did not know then all I am relating to you now.
  • Smile at the checkout clerks and call them by name.
  • No one can “have it all.” If anyone ever accomplished this miracle, we never met. Life is rich without “everything.”

Enough. If you listen to the interview you will hear the voice my patients heard; hear me tell a joke, a story, and have a good time. I am indebted to Megan and Scott Hawksworth for giving me the chance. I think you’ll be able to tell that, too.

Do remember, you won’t be listening to an immortal personage. I subscribe to Woody Allen’s words on the subject: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”

Here again is the link: Career Longevity in Psychotherapy with Dr. Gerald Stein.

The photo just above is the author during his days as a cowboy. Unfortunately, it does not include the horse’s mouth mentioned in the first paragraph.

How Far Should #MeToo Go?

To my knowledge the dilemma hasn’t happened yet, but it seems inevitable. One of the sex abusers identified by the #MeToo movement will die and need burial. Opposition to this will come.

Someone or perhaps many will say, “Not in the same cemetery with someone I respect, someone I love. Not in the same place I will be buried.”

There are historical precedents, as related below.

The question then becomes, how far do we take punishment? Do we make it posthumous?

The link here is to an essay I wrote in 2018, prompted by the death of a World War II Nazi war criminal and the opposition to his burial, not only in particular cemeteries, but by two different countries. Ultimately, no one wanted to inter this man’s body except a group of Holocaust deniers.

I’d be most interested in what you might have to say on the subject. Here, again, is the link:

Are Villains Due Respect When They Die?

The photo of Harvey Weinstein was taken by David Shankbone on May 4, 2010 at the Time 100 Gala. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Would You Like to be Remembered?

Some people try for financial success, some for fame, others for happiness. But what about after? Thus arises a question. What might you want to be remembered for? I asked 58 of my friends. Forty-three put their words together for me. My response is also included.

Here is a selection of the answers I received. Each prefaced by a word or two from me (in bold), with a few other comments along with way. I’m going to begin with the response of the only stranger, the actor John Malkovitch. His recently published interview prompted this essay.*

  • Malkovitch: By my friends as hopefully someone who was a good friend, or at least amusing, but I don’t need to be remembered by people I don’t know.
  • A fierce protector of his family: As crafty and cunning – like a fox. Nobody messes with a fox.
  • A woman of conscience: As having been a person whose children were her highest priority, and whose husband and friends joined her children as her dearest treasures, for whom learning and growing were essential parts of her life, who tried to do the right thing in both ordinary and difficult situations, who tried to understand and be kind and compassionate, who made mistakes and tried to learn from them and make amends for them, who tried to be mindful of and was often grateful for both the obvious and the less visible blessings in her life, and who loved as well and as deeply as she could.
  • An ecumenical reply: As someone who cared deeply about people, and who tried in his own way to make the world a better place for as many people as possible. As the expression goes, “God Bless The Whole World. No Exceptions.”
  • Fathers: After my wonderful father died, my younger brother said he could feel my father’s love moving through him, as he felt so much love for his own children. I would like to be remembered for honoring my father’s legacy with the same hope, that he lingers on as we pass his name to our children and grandchildren and love all of them in the way we were loved by our father.
  • A man’s man: Honest, fair, loving, successful, a survivor.

This is not a scientific survey. It is, however, a pretty good sample of what my friends think. Who are my friends? A well-educated, mostly liberal crowd who are more than usually successful as it is defined in America. This is not a particularly diverse group. The age range begins with a few people in their 30s and many more who are seniors. Just a few more women responded than men, and this selection reflects the same proportion. I’m grateful to all who answered.

  • A quiet man of depth: As a man of integrity, respected – with few acquaintances, but for those close friends a deep and lasting friendship.
  • An answer which nobody can deny: a fun guy to be around.
  • The importance of trying: I always thought I’d like “A for Effort” on my gravestone. I guess I’d like to be remembered as warm, caring, funny, and smart. A good woman and a good (doctor) and a good wife.
  • Two strong women:
    • As a woman who questioned authority and conventional wisdom and who saw people as individuals beyond established categories.
    • As a person of integrity who was prepared to pay the price for standing up for her values and principles. (Both of these women paid the price).
  • Getting to the essentials: A nice guy. If they can’t say that about me, nothing else really matters. And, if they can say that about me, then nothing else really matters.
  • The value of joy: He enjoyed life and helped others do the same.
  • A quotation: “Changing the world is good for those who want their names in books. But being happy, that is for those who write their names in the lives of others, and hold the hearts of others as the treasure most dear.” From Orson Scott Card’s Children of the Mind (1996), the fourth book in his Ender’s Game series.
  • A gentle soul: I want to be remembered in a kind, soft, and compassionate way.
  • Beauty: I’d like to be remembered as an honest guy who did his best. A lover of music and all things beautiful.

You might wonder why the answers are short and why the response rate was high. Here is how I posed the email to which my sample responded:

I’m preparing a blog post on the question, “How would you like to be remembered?” I’d be grateful for a very quick answer. One or two sentences only. Not a word more. Your first impression. If it takes you more than three minutes, it won’t be a first impression. Your identity will be masked in both the blog post and any private conversation I have about the essay. No problem if you’d rather not reply. But, as I say, do it straight away if you’d like to do it.

  • Someone sweet: Every once in a while, I would like my family and close friends to hear a song, see a painting, smell a perfume, or remember a phrase and say to themselves: ”What a great memory. You know, she really made me feel loved.”
  • Living in the present: I don’t care whether I’m remembered.
  • A man who knows what he wants: He always insisted on finding the real problem.
  • From a wise counselor. Lawyer or therapist? You might be surprised: As one providing an ear more than a mouth.
  • A lover: I’d like to be remembered as a kind person who truly loved people and who always loved to learn – no matter the subject.
  • Let’s be frank: As a decent enough person who didn’t f **k up my kids too badly! And hopefully, I’ll have done some things to make the world a little better.

The most commonly used words were honesty, integrity, family, friends, love, and some version of the phrase “making the world a better place.” Many of those who offered such words were not included in this selection of comments in order avoid repetition. No one mentioned the word money. No one cared about their name in history books or hoped for lasting fame. If you can hear it, my friends, I am applauding you all.

  • A man with lots of awards who knows their real value: As a good person, good dad, good friend. With now a moment’s reflection, you should be able to evaluate your own professional life. The doodads you put on the wall or the desk don’t mean much.
  • The salt of the earth: Family, friend, honest, funny, Chicago, California, Texas, 2016 Cubs!
  • Someone who lives by these words, though born in 1947: As a funny, cultured pre-World War One gentleman.
  • The Hippocratic Oath from a non-physician: I’d like to be remembered as someone who cared about the well-being of others and was concerned to do no harm.
  • A survivor and more: Wonder woman-like. I’d like to be remembered for not only triumphing over traumatic adversity, but also utilizing that information to help others in some meaningful way.
  • Saving the planet: As someone who listened and tried to understand and as someone who made a very small difference to improve the lives of humans and animals. And as someone who respected nature.
  • A mom: As the creator of my family: what I brought together.
  • Last words: How would I like to be remembered? With love by those I loved.

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*This essay was inspired by a question Rosanna Greenstreet asked John Malkovich, as published in The Guardian on March 10, 2018. His answer is above and the full article is here: Rosanna Greenstreet/