Why wait until someone is dead before holding a memorial service? Why not give it when he or she can still enjoy it? If Bill (or Sally) is generous, witty, socially spirited, and resourceful, for example, how could we let them know in a ceremonial way?
We savor “roasts,” which focus on faults, often in a comic mode The Catholic Church offers weekly confessions, during which, in private, members can describe their “sins” to a priest and seek redemption.
A video shows a person invited into a small booth containing only headphones and a button. After donning the one and pushing the other, he or she is surprised to hear loved ones saying what a wonderful person the listener is. A camera captures the initial puzzlement and then the smiles. I thought of how rare is praise for a living person.
In response to this video, a friend, who has many accomplishments but from whom I had never heard a social invention, suggested a sort of cross between the confessional and that booth: a place you could go not to receive absolution, but to hear a description of your virtues.
Actually, something like this has been done. A minister in the San Francisco Bay Area holds memorial services for people when they are still living. Sally or Bill sits in the front row, while friends take turns in the pulpit, talking about the guest as if she or he had passed away.
We could do this more widely. Yes, in our society people are sometimes praised at life-reviews, as at retirement or at meetings of social clubs, and medals are awarded. But what fun it would be to enjoy praising and being praised more often. And perhaps how consequential.
On the internet is a teaching story about Thomas Edison, possibly even true. Before the young boy could read, his teacher sent him home with a note. His mother opened it and spoke the following words, “Your son is a genius. This school … doesn’t have good enough teachers to train him. Please teach him yourself.”
As we know, little Thomas went on to invent the phonograph, the motion picture camera, the electric light bulb, and many other devices. Much later the famous inventor was sorting through his late mother’s effects when he came across the folded letter. Savoring the childhood memory, he opened it and found these words: “Your son is mentally deficient. We cannot let him attend our school anymore. He is expelled.”
Perhaps Edison was slow to learn to read, as Einstein was. We know that, in the story, his mom was loving and quick-witted, or to quote a book title, a “haven in a heartless world.”
Could our world become a bit less heartless if we found better ways to give merited praise? I began to wonder about this while writing a book, Better Ways to Live: Honoring Social Inventors, Exploring New Challenges (published in 2017).