top of page

What Really Matters? Some Perspective

"Better to be a man of character than a man of means." Irish proverb

This time of year, many people celebrate All Saints Day, All Souls Day, Day of the Dead. We remember people who have died. It’s an opportunity to step back, gain perspective, think about what matters, consider who we are, who we want to be.

Our weekly compassion circle chose to tell stories of ancestors, friends, and neighbors. We shared the virtues we noticed in them, the ones we would like to emulate. Stories were told of...

Nola, the middle school paraprofessional and ad hoc counselor for both kids and adults who flocked around her. We shared how she loved to visit with others and was a deep listener, "the focus was always on you." After spending hours with folks, she would say, "Well, you know, talking IS my hobby." Followed by a big belly-laugh.

And there were remembrances of Ron, the beloved town pharmacist. “I never left an interaction with him without feeling better about myself.”

There were shared memories of aunts. One who generously receded into the background so that others could shine. One who kept her mouth shut at the all right times.

The aunt stories kept coming.

There was the aunt “who always found something about me to praise.” The aunt “who trusted me, even to hold her newborn.”

And there were stories of congenial fathers and mothers whose presence still loomed large in the heads of these adult children.

It was a time of smiles and laughter along with some grief for their loss. Mostly, for me, it was a time to reflect on what truly matters as we journey here together. It offered me mental space to think about who I want to be when I grow up.

Years ago, when my father visited me as a young mother, harried and stressed, he would say, “June, please stop all this fussing around. Let's take a visit to your town museum.”

I knew what he was getting at. It was Dad’s way of pulling me away from my narrow-focused, petty, fiddle-faddling with unimportant nonsense. He wanted to stretch my perspective, help me take a long view. It was his version of memento mori.

I, like everyone else throughout history, will die. The obvious realization was not meant to cause me death anxiety. Dad was trying to use memento mori like the ancient Romans probably intended it. To broaden my perspective. To free me.

To Dad, the important stuff was connecting with others. He could not go into a store, walk in a mall, pass a person on the street without having an encounter. I was impatient. I knew it could be a deep, perhaps lengthy interaction. (It was a Southern-styled version of the Zulu greeting and practice of sawubona. I SEE you.)

Nevermind that Dad's interactions could be transformational, I didn’t get it. I had things to do. Transactions to make. Miles to go before I slept.

Now that I am older, can look back, I have a different angle on things. I am seeing more of the bigger picture. But I still feel the tension. The pull in different directions.

I get why an article written by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, in 2015, resonated with many.

Brooks' article starts out this way. “About once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued…They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.”

Later, Brooks muses on how meeting such a person brightens his whole day. Then he sadly confesses that though he has a achieved a decent level of career success, he has not attained that depth of character, that generosity of spirit.

Finally, Brooks has a eureka moment. There are two sets of virtues! The résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. He's been over-focused on the résumé ones.

The résumé virtues are the accomplishments and achievements, skills we bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at our funeral — whether we were kind, brave, honest, or faithful, capable of deep love.

“We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones,” Brooks writes. He ends by committing himself to more “moral balance.”

Maybe, if we think about it, many of us have experienced that tension between impressing others and connecting with others. The tension between competition and caring. Between doing stuff and getting stuff for ourselves versus thinking of others. The “me” versus “we” thing. Us versus them.

I appreciate people like Brooks helping me get perspective, helping me figure out who I want to be, giving me an opportunity to consider what a life with more “moral balance" might look like, feel like, offer.

Researchers in psychology like Dr. Paul Gilbert don't use the term, moral balance, but rather emotional systems’ balance. In Gilbert's model, we have an emotional system which is threat-focused, another which is resource-seeking, and a third which is focused on care, connection, and belonging. When these systems are out of balance, we don't do well.

We may become depressed, anxious, angry, and violent. Depression and anxiety often ride alongside an intense focus on myself and my little world.

How do we get balanced? Well it starts with understanding who we are as humans. Not beating ourselves up. Being compassionate toward ourselves and others. Wising up. Getting perspective.

Who knows? Perhaps we can be people of both character and means if we understand how to better balance that internal tension.

We can use reflective articles, stories of people who inspired us, seasons of remembering, a circle of friends, going to the museum, looking at history - various approaches to help us step back and take a wider, longer view. We can intentionally create space to consider what really matters, who we want to be.

If we would truly like a little space, we can use a one-minute clip to take a journey back in history ( To 1968.

Some may recall 1968 was a gruesome year. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Jr. Viet Nam protests. Civil Rights marches.

Apollo 8 astronaut, Frank Borman (link above) is speaking to congress after having seen the earth from 240,000 miles away. He shares these words (that later appeared in the New York Times written by poet, Archibald MacLeish):

o see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know now they are truly brothers.

How might we take or make opportunities to gain perspective on what truly matters, consider who we want to be, and journey together to The Good Life?

a last look at the big picture -


bottom of page