Thursday, October 26, 2006

Reflections on Life

My father passed away recently and this has caused me to reflect not only on his life but my life and how does anyone evaluate a life. How do you determine what constitutes a successful person or fulfilled life? How do you know that you have been successful? In fact what should you be successful at in order to be viewed as a success. My wife has pointed out that everyone is given roles to play in their life. They are called upon to be son or daughter, friend, aunt or uncle, husband or wife niece or nephew, father or mother, grandparent, student, teacher, wage earner, and the list is virtually endless. Everyone has roles they are offered to play and some are taken and some are not. Of those roles taken some are performed well, some not so well, and others may be total failures. For example it is possible to a brilliant executive but poor husband, and failure as a parent or conversely a person can be a great parent but a failure in business or marriage.

We see statues of great men astride their horses and in heroic poses but is greatness or heroism a sign of success? Should we emulate these men? Should we teach our children to be like them? All of these questions lead to the same point and that is the definition of success and how do you evaluate a life. If you equate success to material possessions, heroic deeds, public acclaim, fame, awards, or similar public acknowledgements then only a small percentage of people in the world are successful. Therefore, these cannot be the marks of a successful life but if not then what can be viewed as the basis for a success?

First, I think most people are not capable of evaluating themselves because many people would see themselves as failures even though those about them would view them as wildly successful. Therefore, the evaluation must be done by others and the very basis of the evaluation must be the level of love and respect a person has from those around him. Has the person been committed to another person for a long period of time? Anyone who has been married for any period knows that every relationship has its ups and downs and that it requires commitment and work to maintain. Therefore, anyone who has been able to enter into a marriage and keep it intact for any length of time can be viewed as being successful in marriage. Of course this opens the door to the question regarding same sex “marriages”, which are legally disallowed. Well it seems to me that if any two people establish a long term relationship then they can be viewed as having been successful in a committed relationship.

What about those people who elect to never enter into a marriage or committed relationship – are they automatically failures? Suppose they have some defect, either physical or psychological that prevents them from entering into a committed relationship – does that automatically disqualify them from being recognized as a respected and loving individual? Are they automatically deemed failures in life? I think not, so the fact that an individual can point to a committed relationship over a long period does not automatically deem this person to have had a successful life or worthy of any more or less respect than some one who has not had this kind of a life.

Certainly respect must be earned but is it by itself enough to qualify a person as having had a successful life? I think this might be the least important criteria for evaluating a life because there are many people who have earned great respect but have failed as parents or spouses. I think Albert Einstein falls into this category as does Winston Churchill, but I suspect many business executives and community leaders might fall into this category as well. And this brings us back to the original point – how can you evaluate a life lived? I don’t have an answer to this question and I don’t think anyone else does either. I believe that no one can evaluate a life and conclude that it has been successful or unsuccessful. Of course at this point some will point out that Hitler could not possibly be viewed as having led a successful life, but then that is that person’s opinion and it might be shared by many but it certainly may not have been Hitler’s opinion of himself. There is no doubt that history renders a judgment on some of the prominent, but even there the evaluation of history ultimately is an opinion. Julius Caesar is one of those historical figures about whom history has shown a great deal of ambivalence. Napoleon is probably another who is viewed as monster by some and hero by others.

I think that it is only those people who have been closely associated with another person are qualified to evaluate that person’s life. Certainly, for some of the prominent and famous history may judge them to have been successful or not, but that is an outsider’s opinion and may not be the opinion shared by their families or even those who knew them well. So each of us, in the final analysis, can only be judged by those closest to us. It is our friends and family that ultimately determine if we have been successful. Are your children happy, successful, and independent? Do others speak of you with love and respect? Do others see you as a positive role model or as a negative one?

In reference to my father, I can only say that when I was married I felt that being a husband and father would be easy, all I had to do was to do the opposite of my father. Very quickly I found myself in situations where I thought well I will do what my dad did but I will simply do it better. This turned out to be a good plan but it wasn’t very long before I found myself struggling to do the things my dad did as well as he did them. Finally, I found myself hoping to attain his standard of conduct and falling short. So did my dad have a successful life – in my opinion he did and not only that, he provided a role model for conduct that few can attain and I certainly haven’t, although I try. I think my father was a very successful man and someone who had the love and respect of all who knew him. In the final analysis success is very elusive and may only be determined by the echo’s left behind.

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