In making this suggestion, I am in good company. Akavia ben Mahalalel, in the first Mishnah in the third perek of Pirkei Avos, has something important to say on the matter. Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Known whence you came, whither you go, and before Whom you will give justification and reckoning. Intellectually, we are aware of all of these things. In practice, however, it’s only too easy to let our attention drift away. One of the yeitzer hora’s most effective tools is also a very simple one. It’s called distraction.
Life can be distracting. Ironically, our lives can distract us from the purpose of life itself! Even as we scurry about trying to fulfill our various responsibilities, the aim of our efforts can become fuzzy. We become so wrapped up in simply getting through the daily round that we lose sight of what it’s all for. In tending our particular trees, we neglect the forest. We forget what’s waiting for us at the end of that long round… A justification and a reckoning.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about carbon footprints. Companies are praised or chastised for the size of the “footprint” they are leaving on the environment. But industrial concerns aren’t the only things to leave their mark on this world. Every one of us is in the process of doing the same thing, each in our own way. When the time comes to move on to a better world, we will each have left our own, unique footprint behind.
The question is: what kind of footprints will they be?
How do you want to be remembered?
I’ve attended a number of funerals in my time, most of them of people I did not know well. Listening to the eulogies, I’ve been struck by how often individuals are remembered for their small acts of kindness, for the listening ear and the pleasant smile that made others happy. Worldly accomplishments aside, by and large most people are remembered for the light they’ve managed to shine on the lives of those around them.
The difference between an ordinary person and a great one, I think, is that the latter never loses sight of the goal. A great person knows what he wants, and he directs every particle of focus and energy towards achieving it.
As a student, I once wrote a report about the Vilna Gaon. My adolescent mind was dazzled and amazed by the description of a man whose every waking moment, and there were plenty of them, as he slept very little, was focused on his avodas Hashem. Even in our own time, we don’t have to look far to find such individuals. They are great because their vision is great. And they never distract themselves from the goal of bringing it to fruition.
Children grow up in a very self-contained and narrow world. Their interests and concerns revolve around their own feelings and desires. Gradually, as they turn into adults, the scope widens until they are ready to take their place in the vast scheme of Hashem’s plan for His world. You’d think that adulthood would automatically set things in their proper perspective, and, in a perfect world, it would. But we live in an imperfect one, where childish outlooks and emotions can linger on for far too long inside grown-up bodies and intellects. And so, we play. We play at work, at marriage, at parenthood.
In everybody’s life, there comes a point when he or she suddenly realizes that it’s not a game anymore. Or rather, that it never was one. The realization may come about gradually, through maturity and life experience, or suddenly, through trauma or painful difficulty. Either way, things can never be the same again. No longer can we rest on the easy assurance that life will fall into place at our command. With a fresh and aching awareness that it doesn’t always do so, we finally turn in earnestness to the only One who can help us through the morass.
Under the weight of our burdens, our tefillah – perhaps for the first time – becomes truly meaningful. Struggling with our roles as wives, husbands, mothers and fathers, we begin to pay attention to our middos in a way that we may not have done before. We start setting goals, both internal and practical, for becoming the people we realize we must become. We’ve finally come to terms with the fact that we’re not immortal. There’s going to be a reckoning one day, and we want to ace it.
We are going to leave footprints behind when we go. Optimally, those footprints will be meaningful ones. We’d like to leave something positive with those whose lives we’ve touched.
A glimpse of a life well-lived. A cherished memory. An inspiration.
What can we do to ensure that we will leave those kinds of things behind?
The Chazon Ish, in Emunah U’Bitachon, says that there is essentially only one middah, from which all other middos derive; and that’s the ability to control ourselves. Self-control is the name of the game.
We must become the masters of our reactions, and not the other way around. Even if our anger (or jealousy or bitterness or any other negative emotion) feels justified. Even if we gain huge, albeit temporary, satisfaction from venting our negativity. At the end of the day, self-control is the thing that allows us to live the way we choose to live, and not the way we feel impelled to live.
Once we are able to exercise our power of free choice, the next step is to choose shalom.
In a perfect world, peace would flow naturally and uninhibitedly under all circumstances. Given our splintered and fractured reality, it’s up to us to make it happen. We do it by suppressing our egos and subsuming our personal desires, our likes and dislikes and prejudices, to the greater good – that is, the greater peace. By making another’s happiness truly important to us. By embracing cooperation rather than rivalry. By relishing harmony more than the pleasure of coming out on top.
We need to smile a lot; at the people in our families, at our friends and at total strangers. It’s amazing how a simple smile can lift the spirits… our own as well as another’s. Try giving yourself a big smile in the mirror first thing in the morning. You may be surprised by the results.
And finally, like the greats throughout the generations, we need to keep our eye on the ball. Not to let the endless petty demands and annoyances of this world distract us from our ultimate goal. To always remember that we will be held accountable one day.
We will all leave a footprint behind. The question is, what kind of footprint will it be?
How do you want to be remembered?