Whenever there is the passing of a friend, an acquaintance or a family member this topic comes to mind. In this case it was learning of the death of a hiking acquaintance from 25 years ago: Dick Wassenaar.
What will the wider world remember of one’s own passing? Probably nothing unless one were a celebrity or famous in some way. At best, as in Dick’s case, it is one lonely paragraph on the Internet.
Main picture: These homemade and handheld ‘pistol fireworks’ are used at the Gion Matsuri festival at the Yoshida Shrine in Toyohashi City, Japan
What about one’s circle of family, friends and acquaintances? Would one be missed? Would one be fondly remembered? It is highly likely that in the immediate aftermath of a death, all comments, like all eulogies, will only emphasise the positive aspects of their life. Barely an allusion will be made to any misdemeanours even in the case of a rogue.
But what of the longer term?
The aspects that will evoke fond memories are never how hard they worked or how fastidious they were or how huge their mansion was but how they touched one’s life. This is the crux of one’s legacy: making an impact upon other people.
I contend that herein lies the purpose and meaning of life.
My memories of Dick
Did Dick make an impact on my life?
In short No. Perhaps he never would have due to the fact that I only met him a few times in my life and possibly due to the 30 years difference in age between us.
Nonetheless I will remember Dick fondly for the rest of my life. For a person in his mid-60’s when I first met him on the Fish River Canyon Hiking Trail I was a youthful 35 year old.
From a different milieu and background, he could be referred to as the lovable rogue. An avowed Nazi in spite of being Dutch he volunteered to work as a gastarbeiter at the Junkers aircraft factory in Germany during WW2.
Around the fire at night in the canyon with the white shiny stars pressed tightly onto a jet black sky, Dick would enthusiastically regale us about his alter ego, the youthful Nazi protagonist assisting the Germans albeit indirectly in their military endeavours.
Dick, the reprobate, used / abused his position to obtain the favours of all the females in the women’s barracks. With the menfolk away at the front or dead, he had the free rein of the henhouse so to speak.
With the collapse of the Third Reich, Dick was forced to flee from the advancing Russians by swimming across the Elbe River.
If I have just one regret in life, it is that I never wrote a biography on his life during this tumultuous period.
That is now impossible for Dick passed away on 26th July 2012 in Pietermaritzburg.
Purpose and meaning of Life
Do I believe that some higher being has preordained a purpose of life for us?
Do we or alternatively should we have a purpose in life other than just surviving? If so what is it?
The challenge for me is that in the context of one’s life, purpose and meaning are so inextricably linked that to treat them as discreet topics becomes nonsensical.
Why is this so?
Because purpose drives meaning and vice versa. Both are merely different sides of the same coin.
Pure insouciant idleness and slothfulness never creates a sense of achievement, contentment and fulfilment.
Ironically, it is the attainment of a goal through Churchillian toil and sweat, that one appreciates attaining the goal all the more.
So it is with life.
But what about other people? Do they have a role in this self-affirmation process?
Herein lies the elusive missing jig-saw puzzle piece.
If one’s goal were to be achieved on another planet without another soul being aware of its attainment, what would one feel?
In contrast, if one attained one’s goal together with a whole bunch of friends would one not be more elated, more fulfilled but also more self-satisfied? Maybe not initially but certainly in the long term.
It is just like trying to explain a super vacation to a friend who never seems to be as animated or excited about it as you are. On the other hand, a shared holiday becomes a shared experience which always binds one intimately to that person.
What does this have to do with purpose and meaning in life?
Instead of trampling on others in one’s quest for success, by making others feel part of the team of your life however menial their impact on your goal is, would that not bind one to them when the goal is attained.
Instead of ignoring the receptionist when you arrive at work, acknowledge that person not in a perfunctory disinterested manner but rather as an equal. Ask them something personal like how her children are by name as if they are important to you too.
Respect is earned and not awarded with the job title. People need to be appreciated and respected even if they are from a different station in life.
Whatever one defines as the purpose of one’s life is immaterial.
Purpose is only meaningful and provides meaning by involving others as equals.
Even if that journey is life itself, make it meaningful by treating all others, especially the little people, with dignity and respect.
For if one does so, then on one’s passing one will be assured of a durable legacy: the undying respect and admiration of one’s former colleagues, friends, acquaintances and family.
Is that not what we should be striving for in life?