How to Boil a Whole Life Down to a Few Paragraphs

How to Boil a Whole Life Down to a Few Paragraphs
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A few paragraphs. That’s it.

Throughout the years, a number of relatives, mostly older, have passed away. When I was 13, I wrote the eulogy for my grandmother’s funeral. When I was 25, I wrote the obituary and eulogy after my aunt passed. Just a few short months ago, I edited the obituary that my cousin wrote when my uncle died. One shook me. Two jolted me. But three...three did something I didn’t expect.

Do you know that you’ll be summed up into a few short paragraphs?

As a writer and holder of deep, wordless feelings, I struggle with whether the human condition can be fully captured with language. My personal opinion is that Shakespeare came the closest, but there still remains a void; writers are tasked with continuing to try and wrestle it down and present it. They have to be the ones to attempt to make you feel what they are feeling. Enough so that the audience, too, gets it. But my opinion remains: I can tell you, I can paint the words beautifully with metaphors and analogies, but you still won't fully feel it.

There is no word for sad, but angry, mixed with a little bit of jealousy. There is no capturing the cocktail of hormonal surges that occurs when you first fall in love. And, I’ve realized, there is no way to pay tribute to a life—a full life, a life lived with goodness and love—in a few short paragraphs.

I struggled. I really, really struggled. Writing eulogies and obituaries for my grandmother and aunt felt like monumental tasks, perhaps the most important writing I have ever done in my entire life.

How important, really, is another published article for your resume when you have the honor and responsibility of commemorating another human life?

When you have to do it, you have to get to work immediately. You’ll begin by prompting yourself with trite questions like, “What was really important to this person?” And if you’re anything like me, you get a twinge of unease because they were so much more than that.

After a while I abandoned the questions and just tried to capture their essence. After all, the words themselves wouldn’t be remembered, but the feeling that they gave off would be. I did the best I could, knowing I would never deem it good enough.

But do you get it yet? That you—me—we—will be boiled down to a few short paragraphs?

After editing my uncle’s obituary, I saw it published in The Boston Globe. It described where he lived, who succeeded him. It mentioned that his family would miss his incredible sense of humor. While no different than many other obituaries, the shortness took my breath away. Like my aunt, like my grandmother: it just didn’t feel right.

Jeez, this is morbid, you might be thinking. Well, I don’t quite see it that way.

After my uncle’s services, something changed in me. In a conversation I had with him before he died, he told me, regarding marriage, to not take things too seriously and take time to laugh together. This was profoundly special to me, as I cherish wisdom from those who have decades on me and have seen it all.

He’s right.

It’s not about a silly adage like “live life to the fullest.” No, it’s about facing your mortality, thinking about your eventual end. By realizing that even for a minute, your priorities and worries shuffle back into order by themselves.

As a lifelong anxiety struggler, I have found nothing more profoundly calming than the notion that everything I ever loved, everything I ever cared about, everything that encompasses me will someday cease to exist.

At first, it will only help you for a few minutes. You'll say, “Wow, I better appreciate it now while it lasts.” But after some time of focusing on this, you’ll eventually relish in how temporary everything is. You’ll realize that we are all important, but we’re not. We are all special, but not really. That’s still okay. It’s actually better that way.

Because the reality is that you cannot do it. I’m sorry to say it, but you cannot boil a life down into a few paragraphs. However, the important thing is to remember that someday, somebody will try. When we die, one of our family members will sit there with the blinking cursor in front of them and decide what highlights of your entire existence will be immortalized in the local paper. And, they might not get it totally right.

When you make your mind travel this far away from your present struggles, you realize how utterly preoccupied we are with our own importance. And when you fight the human instinct to not think about death, you are socked in the gut with life, overwhelmed with how much life is on you, in you, around you.

I think we can all use a little more of that.

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