We all think about what mark, if any, we will leave behind. The simple, straight-forward approach is to think what will be said about me at my funeral? Will everything said during my eulogy be true and honest? I call this the ‘simple’ approach because it’s an easy way to think about the legacy you’ve left behind. The harder (and more exhaustive) way to think about this is to analyze and ask yourself if you’ve lived every moment of your life, treated everyone as if no one is watching. I bring this up because I have come to realize, through my condition, that I hope to be remembered for the kindness I showed others. I have always lived my life according to the Golden Rule, but since this tumor resection, I have come to two realizations: 1. without the compassion and empathy I try to bestow on others, my recovery from and coping with my newfound condition would be drastically and negatively different. And 2. My condition has allowed me to see the amazing and beautiful true nature of my fellow man. These two ideas are not exclusive, in fact they are intertwined.
I have always strived to show others true compassion and empathy. I suppose my entrance into medicine was an extension of this ideal; a way to hone and polish these traits. My 30 years on this Earth, before this ordeal, were devoted to this ideal. Little did I know that in an attempt to achieve this I was actually preparing myself for the struggles that lay ahead. The reason I say that my compassion and empathy have been crucial to my recovery, and furthermore that this condition has put the kindness of others on display, is that this compassion towards others has allowed me to appreciate the kindness that others have shown to me. It’s like appreciating a beautiful piece of art: anyone can be mesmerized by a captivating painting, but the person who has studied that painting, the artist, and the story behind the piece of art will appreciate it more. My life has been devoted to this ‘art’, in fact I chose a profession where this ‘art’ can be studied further. My point is that now the proverbial tables have been turned and the empathy and compassion I have worked tirelessly to portray to others is now shown to me; I firmly believe that had I not been so attuned to this trait, my appreciation of it would be diminished.
I understand that there is a difference between pity and empathy; I also understand that while much of this ‘kindness’ from others is actually rooted in pity rather than empathy, this only represents a small portion of these kind acts.
Thus, I return to my original point and the title of this piece: legacy. I have had long conversations with my stepfather surrounding the idea of reincarnation. His response struck me. “Yes, I believe in reincarnation. By touching your life, my spirit lives on in you, and anyone else’s life I affected. So even after I die, my spirit lives on through you, your kids, and your kid’s kids. So in that sense my soul lives on after I die, and so yes, according to that definition, I do believe in reincarnation.” I once mentioned that meeting with old friends who knew me before the discovery of my tumor gave me great angst. But I’ve since come to realize that what my stepfather said is correct: your actions and ultimately your soul lives on through the lives you touch. Now even though part of me is anxious at the thought of seeing friends that I haven’t seen since my surgery, I leave our visit being grateful that this person knew me before my affliction. When I meet new people, I can’t help but remember that this person did not know me before the surgery and thus has no memory of the person I was; thankfully in the former scenario, this person knew me both before and after the surgery and thus doesn’t make any incorrect assumptions about me; at my funeral I wouldn’t want it to be said about me: “Chris, a disabled man, was a kind, loving person.” Instead I hope it is said that, “Chris, who I knew before his surgery during his tennis playing days, lived a life of empathy and compassion.” What do you want said at your funeral? What do you want your legacy to be?