Two of the most important people of my life have recently died. My grandfather, who was like a second father to me, died in 2019. My father died recently, at the end of 2021. After both their deaths, there were the respective festivities that christianity prescribes. And I felt they both were lacking an honest look on the lives of the deceased. This forced me to reflect on how I as an humanist and atheist reflect on someone’s life.
I’m going to outline the general principles here, that can be applied to reflecting on anyone’s life. I’m also going to bring them into the context of my fathers life – a life well lived.
Impact on Themselves
First, let’s examine the person’s relationship with themselves. How did they treat themselves? What were their personal goals? What did they sacrifice to achieve their goals? What can we learn from all that?
My father lived 150%, one might say he was burning the candle at both ends. But that also means he lived fully, in the moment, not in the future, which is a virtue I still strive to mirror. I feel he had achieved all his personal goals and was at peace with himself when he died – even though he was only 61 years old. He derived too much pleasure from buying things – which led me to try to suffocate that same impulse in myself.
Impact on Individuals
Now their relationship with us and other individuals. While reflecting, this maybe the most important perspective to us personally, because it also includes the impact this person had on us. What did we learn from them? What did they want for us? How did they shape our relationship?
My father showed me – by example – the boundless joys to be had listening to and making music. He also taught me how to make up my own mind and come to decisions quickly, not idle for too long. I think my father wanted me to become an independent and confident person, and only when necessary, pushed me in a direction to help me get there. He also showed me that it’s possible to be a family person that supports their kids, a passionate doctor who found his calling in helping people and still retain a strong personal identity.
Impact on Their Communities
Time to zoom out one step and look at more than individuals. What direct and indirect impact did the person exhibit on their communities (be they local or digital)? What communities did they inhabit and how did they change them? Did their actions inspire examples? How did they treat strangers whom they might never meet again?
My father was a bit of a recluse regarding the immediate local community of his village. But when it mattered, when the four neighboring houses were filled with refugees (from Syria, mostly), he not only donated heaps of money to help, he also took it upon himself to personally be there for them, finding old bikes and making them road ready for the refugees, giving them the gift of a much higher freedom of movement – amongst many other helpful activities. That phase of his life made me insanely proud of him. As the seven-year president of the local sailing club, he tried to foster an environment of positive competitiveness and skill growth.
Impact on Society
Another zoom-out. Let’s look at the rest of humanity – society as a whole, and the person’s impact on it. What role did they play to move society into the future? Which cog in which machine did they represent? How did their utopia look like?
My father was a doctor by calling. He played that part very well, always stayed reasonable and science-based and thus also moved his profession by practice into a more science-based future. He spent most of his considerable income on music and art, and became somewhat of a local art beneficiary for at least 10 years – and through that small role, helped society move into a more beautiful future.
Impact on the Environment
And lastly, let’s not look at the impact on humans any more, but the impact on everything else. How did they contribute to a more sustainable way of life? What did they do for the environment? Have they changed their impact on the environment over time? In which areas were they exemplary?
Politically, my father supported the progressive instead of the backward-looking, the reasonable over the fearful. Other than that, there is not too much to say about my father on this topic.
No person can shine from all perspectives. I imagine everyone’s lifes as a branch with five leaves. But differently from nature, a persons branch has five differently sized & shaped leaves. Some people exerted their impact mostly on individuals. Some forewent individual relationships to pursue higher goals for society or the environment. Which means that maybe one of their leaves looks quite wilted, because the person spent no time to nurture it.
I’m convinced that any reflection of a person’s life should forego the wilted leaves and rather not mention much instead of delving in a person’s shortcomings – with the exception of shortcomings that one can draw a useful lesson from.
Maybe the content of a person’s clover leaf also helps us understand a person better in retrospect. It definitely helped me to understand my father better.