Images of Our Lives: Resumes, Eulogies, Compost

            PBS and New York Times commentator David Brooks has experienced a major spiritual transformation in recent years.  One of his epiphanies is that many of us live with two sets of virtues in play.   As he wrote in a column entitled “The Moral Bucket List”:

            It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

            We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.[i]

            From the first time I read this column, I appreciated this distinction and its implications. In this post, I’m going to comment on my own experience with resumes and eulogies, then add an additional thought.

Resumes: Much of my career was spent building my resume, and it was always interesting to read the resumes of others. Earning degrees, seeking accomplishments that I could quantify, publishing articles and serving on boards were all facts to add to the resume. This is what it takes to create a meaningful work life in a competitive society. It’s part of life in the modern world. But a resume does not a life make.

            Eulogies: One of the activities I treasured as a pastor was participating in memorial services.  I was always keen to hear what would be said about the person being remembered, and how the stories would cause each of us to pause and reflect on our own lives.

            If I was organizing the service, I would work with the family to create a simple outline of the person’s life: where they were born, what they did, and what they accomplished – something like their resume.  But that just set the stage for the stories people would share about the person: how they treated other people, and what moments friends and family look back on with appreciation. As David Brooks noted, in eulogies we often hear examples of the virtues of kindness, bravery, honesty or faithfulness – many ways in which people manifest “deep love.” 

            So far, so good.  I like identifying these two important aspects of our lives.

            But as I’ve been thinking of this distinction, I kept feeling like there was something missing, and only recently felt like I knew what it is.

            Resumes exist in print and are plain for all to see.  The “eulogy virtues” may be affirmed as part of a memorial service or obituary.  But what if the person lives a very long life, and dies when there is no one left to hear the eulogy?

            I think of my own father.  He lived to be 91, and almost all of those years were lived in Redlands and San Bernardino. He was active in many civic organizations and a well-known man in his day. In his last few years, my sister and I brought him to a retirement home in Santa Barbara so we could see him more often.  When he died, we arranged for a service back in San Bernardino.  We published an obituary in his hometown paper and spread the word as well as we could. But on the day of the service, only 3 or 4 people showed up besides family.  It was understandable – he had outlived most of the people he knew – but it was also disappointing.

            I’ve done services for people who die in relative obscurity. There’s no one there to describe and affirm the virtues and integrity they saw in the person. It doesn’t seem right.

            A similar thought arises when I’m with my young grandsons.  We share meaningful and fun times.   I find myself hoping they’ll remember our time together when they are older.  But what if I die before the memories take root? Will the time we share “count?”

            It reminds me of the familiar riddle, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We could rephrase it: “If someone dies and no one is there to give a eulogy, is the life a waste?” 

            Ruminating on this question has led me to think of compost.

            Compost  Many years ago in seminary a preaching and communications professor challenged us to think about how we envision the preaching task.

            “You might tend to think of your sermons as roses,” he said. “A masterpiece that you cultivate it until it’s a thing of beauty.  Then you carefully cut it, and bring it to display before the congregation on a Sunday morning . As people leave the service, you hope people will tell you what a beautiful rose you created.  Well, I invite you to not think of preaching that way.  Think of your sermons as compost.  Compost you work into the soil of peoples’ lives you are serving. The beauty comes from what flowers in their life.”

            The purpose of compost is to disappear into the soil, freely giving itself to produce new life.  It doesn’t need to be named to be real and everlasting.  So it is with our lives.  The good we do for others may not be quantified on a resume or be lauded in a eulogy, but that doesn’t mean it’s of no value. It’s a gift we can give, and then let it go.


[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/david-brooks-the-moral-bucket-list.html