Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my grandfather's passing. I saw his tombstone for the first time.
His epitaph, like that of many others (although, few are fortunate enough to experience 90 years of life), read: BELOVED HUSBAND, FATHER, GRANDFATHER & GREAT GRANDFATHER. Nestled beside the small bronzed plaque engraved with "VETERAN, U.S. MILITARY," those five simple words chiseled in stone say so much yet so little about him.
My grandfather, or my "PaPa" as I called him, was indeed all those things. Just as I echoed during his eulogy that I read a year ago, he was a man who was content to love, and be loved, by his family and friends. Although family was certainly a key avenue through which he found meaning in life, inevitably, he was also far more then those six engraved words.
Of course, those essential descriptors to his life—to all of our lives—are still fitting. They are what we want to be judged by: we want to be loving mothers and fathers, successful professionals, and trustworthy friends. I certainly strive to be each of these things, although not without my own faults.
But as I read those few words yesterday, staring at his stone for the first time, I could not help but imagine what words would come after those engraved ones, in all their eternal permanence. These unwritten words: the words that are not read, are not seen, and that few remember. I then thought about myself, about my actions, about the world, and about the unwritten words that would not be emblazoned on my own epitaph one day, but that, I hope, might also define my existence, even if it’s only in an ethereal manner. I hope they would say that I was kind, caring, and loving; that I was trustworthy, responsible, and loyal; that I was all these things not just to those that I loved, and loved me, but to my advisers, colleagues, acquaintances, and maybe most of all, complete strangers.
It’s a simple concept, of course, and the opposite of profound, as we hear a similar refrain constantly: “be a good person,” quotes about random acts of kindness, or stories about people doing anonymous nice deeds. These are all wonderful, if not idealistic, sentiments—and I certainly try to live my life by these mantras. But let’s be honest: life is hard, and ignoring the day-to-day struggles would be inauthentic. It’s tough enough navigating the many hardships that exist within our daily lives, let alone nationally and globally. Not all of us have the money to donate funds, or the time to volunteer, or, admittedly, the will or desire to do either. And, you know, that’s okay. We are so rightly focused on making sure that the written words—about being a family member or friend and developing a career—come to fruition that we don’t have the ability (or the energy) to do the extracurricular.
Our society’s collective idea of what makes a person great has been so simplified and materialized. We are constantly bombarded by slogans that objectify a person’s civic duty as being so black and white. Those that donate money to charity or volunteer, for example, are applauded while those who don’t are not. These selfless acts, while seemingly unwritten, are, to some extent, still recorded in history and remembered in society—he or she was a “philanthropist” or “activist” or the more chic “social entrepreneur.” To be clear, I deeply admire people who fit these descriptions, and I sincerely hope that I will one day be described as such. The idea of helping those less fortunate is a beautiful thing, and for me personally, it brings meaning and sense of purpose to my life—just as it did for my late grandfather and all of my living grandparents, all whom have donated both ample time and money to various causes over many decades.
These generous actions certainly make us good. But do these actions alone make us great?
That’s why to me, the most noble acts of “goodness” are sometimes the ones that seem the hardest to grasp and the most difficult to recognize—these unwritten words. Words that describe actions that often go unnoticed and unappreciated: namely, treating all people with kindness, love, and respect during the most obscure moments of life. Frankly, treating a stranger with kindness on a bad day can sometimes be harder then writing a check and walking away—it requires a great deal of humility, patience, perseverance (we all do have bad days!), and most of all, an inner sense of love and compassion.
The people I admire most in this world are not only the philanthropists who donate the most money or the activists who spend most time volunteering—although, again, I do admire them and like to think that I could humbly include myself in these categories one day—but those who are consciously kind, even when it’s hard and when you know that moment in time will evaporate. For example, my brother, a successful businessman, who treats all of his employees with respect and fairness, no matter their role in the company. My two professors, extremely successful and in-demand scholars, who treat all of their students with kindness, down from their most established research fellows to random high school students on the street. My mother, who, no matter the time or day, so easily flashes a smile and befriends every person she meets from the bank teller, to the waiter, not out of pretentiousness but out of genuine love.
My grandfather was a good man because he was a loving family member and friend, and because he was so charitable, spending his life donating his time (he didn’t have any money!) to the elderly and the sick literally everyday. That much is true—recorded, written, in the legacy through his family offspring and the tangible lives he improved through his charitable actions. But he was great because he treated everyone with kindness, everyday, all the time, despite his own personal hardships. To me, that’s the testament of true greatness.
So let us all be great. And let us all be conscious of the unwritten words that describe us—how we live when nobody else is looking or listening, the conversations we have with people that will never be recorded, and the actions we perform that will never make it on our tombstone, but define us, the living, in the present, each and every day.