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Cultivating our ‘Eulogy Self’

April 22, 2019


Recently, a death arose that brought me back to Brian Doyle’s bittersweet essay, Notes from a Wake. An Irish priest had passed. Amid photographs and a chalice, whiskey and a few fine cigars smoked “on a side porch under a cedar tree [by] a dozen men and two women,” family, friends and the faithful gathered. An old friend told stories of his youth. Younger folks sang – and debated the lyrics – of an old Irish song, St. Brendan’s Fair Isle. A tally was made of family baptisms, marriages and funerals performed by the deceased. Jokes were told. A slow jig was danced. Infants were up too late. Food was packaged up. And then it was done.

It was perfect.

That’s how I want to be remembered.

A few years ago, David Brooks wrote The Road to Character. With more heartache than anguish, he mourns what we have become in our modern, efficient, unreflective world. The two sides of our nature (described by Rabbi Soloveitchik as Adam Iand Adam II) are forever in tension with one another. Adam Iis our exterior self,  driven by achievement and honors. It is our “resume self”. Adam II is our interior self, moved by eternal verities and ineffable moments (falling in love, doing the right thing, honoring our God and our family). It is our “eulogy self”. Brooks observes, with no small amount of regret, that we have lost Adam II because of the oversized drive and social celebration of Adam I. We give lip service to what we would like people to say of us after we have passed, but our daily lives betray that we are in fact obsessed with our growing list of shiny, new achievements. While I wouldn’t call Soloveitchik’s construct or Brooks’ expansion upon it the definitive or last word on the complexity of man and his soul, their point is worthy of consideration.

What have we become? And what have we lost?

In a wonderful little essay, Morning Report(which I have written about in these pages before), a harried first year internal medicine resident races through the morning examining fourteen patients, reviewing labs, writing notes, speaking with nurses and families in the desperate effort to finish and make it to her residents’ conference at 10 a.m. What foils her efforts (interesting that, in the race for efficiency, it is the work of the soul that is always blamed for foiling the effort), is an emotional moment with a patient who has just come to the fuller realization that she will die from pancreatic cancer. What upsets this resident’s efficient plan is that she sits down, holds a hand, and feels her own eyes well up with tears. It is a fleeting, but real, transcendent moment of fellowship. It only lasts a moment, but Adam IIjust told Adam I to wait.

Daily, in my medical practice, I see this struggle. And in my life, I experience it. Reasonably, we are all simply trying to survive. We go to school and get our degrees. Along the way, we compete in sports or sing in choirs or join the robotics team or work toward our Eagle Scout. Surely, we take on new experiences to grow as individuals, but we also strive to make ourselves more attractive and more marketable for bigger and better opportunities. We are using our gifts. We are trying to do well. And as we do well, we get stroked. We are told how good we are, how much we have helped, how far we will go. And Adam I, smiles and grows bigger and bigger. But then something happens: an illness, a death, a divorce, a job loss, a house fire, a betrayal. It is something that reminds us that, while our resume is awesome, it won’t make a damn bit of difference in this moment. Adam I shrinks; Adam II, in his wobbly, underfed state, begins to rise.

It is Easter Sunday morning as I write this. Everyone is asleep. In a few hours, the house will be bustling with preparation for Mass, disputes about who is in which bathroom for how long, followed by an eager search for all twenty Easter eggs stuffed with Starbursts and Twix bars (several of which, I will help in eating). THIS is my life. The worship of a God who not only made me, but went through (and to) Hell to rescue me in my brokenness. The warm fellowship with my lovely wife and my beautiful and delightfully squirrely daughters. Good food. Fatherly tomfoolery. Crushing hugs from little ones that still believe in me. Moments. Transcendent moments. Moments that would never make it on a resume because they are too precious for that scrap of paper.

In 1906, as G.K. Chesterton concluded his book about Charles Dickens, he made this wonderful and indispensable observation.

Comradeship and serious joy are not interludes in our travel; but… rather our travels are interludes in comradeship and joy, which through God shall endure for ever. The inn does not point to the road; the road points to the inn. And all roads point at last to an ultimate inn, where we shall meet Dickens and all his characters; and when we drink again it shall be from the great flagons in the tavern at the end of the world.

It is an observation celebrated by those at the Irish priest’s wake. It is an ethic aspired to by the Adam IIin each of us. It is my Easter Sunday morning. It reminds us that our love of family, fellowship of friends and worship of a crucified (now, risen) God are not interludes – pit stops or way-stations – on our road to success, our journey to resume building, or our cultivation of Adam I. They are the central act, the reason for being, the essence of life. They. Are. Everything.

Surely, we should achieve, strive and be excellent. Our “resume self” is a fine self worthy of regard.

But our “eulogy self”?  Now, that’s who God has truly called us to be. Worthy of a fondly recalled memory, a slowly danced jig or a wistful, warm puff on a fine cigar.