What I Learned From Two Funerals in Two Days
I dreaded two funerals in two days. One was for the mother of a friend, and the other for a woman who designed the cover of a book I published. I almost didn’t go, because glorious spring weather was more tempting than the inside of a church. But resisting the urge to stay home and write or hike or work in the garden, I ended up attending both funerals and learned something valuable.
I learned that no matter how much we accomplish; no matter how creative we are, or how much money we earn, or how many books we publish, the impact we make is a result of the relationships we’ve forged along the way.
The woman who designed my book cover was a talented artist who had traveled the world and was extremely successful in her field, but this isn’t what people talked about when they stood at the podium and shared their memories.
One speaker talked of a trip they took to Italy; the laughter and camaraderie over shared pasta and sightseeing. “I urge you now to take the trip and eat the pasta with those you care about,” she said, “because one day it will be too late.”
Another friend talked about the compassion and caring exhibited on numerous occasions. “She was always there for me, even if she had to drop everything she was doing to show up,” this person said.
On and on the eulogies went, relating incident after incident of shared friendship and experiences. Never once was there mention of a successful business venture, a published book or a popular blog.
Striving to attain our goals and utilizing our talents are worthwhile pursuits. There’s nothing wrong with success. But the funerals were a reminder that there is much, much more to life and that I need to be more intentional about cultivating and maintaining relationships.
It’s not that I’m antisocial or that I don’t have friends. I do. But I also have a tendency to be too content with my own company. I allow writing, reading, physical activity or home projects to consume my days with too little effort made to fit others into my schedule.
This is probably true of a lot of introverts. While friendly and outgoing at times, we can also be perfectly happy by ourselves. Yet strong relationships add a vital dimension to life. Other people provide unique perspectives and a rich vein of experience different from our own. Our solitary pursuits are enriched when fertilized by their gifts and talents.
Relationships also give us an opportunity to offer something of ourselves to others, fostering our own growth in the process.
“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…it has no survival value; rather, it is one of those things which give value to survival.” C.S. Lewis
A successful relationship requires us to be vulnerable. We allow another person to see our weaknesses as well as our strengths. How many of us shy away from drawing closer for this very reason? We’re afraid that someone will glimpse the imperfections behind the facade.
Maybe if someone spends enough time with us, they’ll find out we’re dull, not very much fun, lacking charisma or talent.
But so what? Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable means allowing ourselves to be seen and accepted for exactly who we are. This is freeing and refreshing, because being with others is no longer stressful if there is no facade to maintain.
“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.” Muhammad Ali
A successful relationship requires us to be flexible. When we allow someone else into our life we make room in our schedule and in our heart for another person who has different needs and desires. Being there for someone else is a temporary setback to my own rigid plans, but in making room for others I also make room for new ideas and feelings. I relinquish my tunnel vision for a view that is more expansive.
A successful relationship requires us to be forgiving. Any time we involve ourselves with other people, we find sooner or later that it’s necessary to forgive. And to be forgiven. No one is perfect and no one can live up to everyone else’s expectations. Accepting other people for exactly who they are, warts and all, is crucial.
Accepting others is much easier if we’ve learned to accept ourselves. When we can forgive ourselves for the times we fall short and quit criticizing ourselves if we don’t meet our own expectations we are much better at extending this same grace to other people.
A successful relationship requires that we take things less personally. We stop being too thin-skinned. Sometimes I’m the one in a relationship who is making everything happen. I’m the one who initiates contacts; the one who stays in touch. Instead of taking it personally and deciding, “This person doesn’t like me anymore. I’m never going to call them again,” I can decide it has nothing to do with me.
Maybe my friend is more of an introvert than I am and doesn’t initiate contacts with anyone. Maybe she’s going through a hard time, or suffering from depression and can’t get motivated to take any action. If this is a relationship worth maintaining, I can be upfront and honest. Why not ask what the problem is?
If my friend isn’t responsive, I can decide this relationship is too one-sided and isn’t worth pursuing, or I can decide to stay in touch but not be overbearing. By not taking things too personally, I’m free to pursue or not pursue the relationship without my hurt feelings being the deciding factor.
A successful relationship requires our time. We want to accomplish a lot and sometimes people slow us down. But what greater accomplishment can there be than impacting and influencing others. As I learned at the funerals, we do this by offering our time, even when we’re inconvenienced.
“How many slams in an old screen door? Depends how loud you shut it. How many slices in a bread? Depends how thin you cut it. How much good inside a day? Depends how good you live ’em. How much love inside a friend? Depends how much you give ‘em.” Shel Silverstein
All the things relationships require of me: to be more vulnerable, more flexible, more forgiving and less thin-skinned, are characteristics that help me grow. People take up my time, but they also enrich my life and expand my horizons. I can’t give up my solitude, which nurtures my spirit and allows my creativity to flourish, but I can make room for the relationships that move me beyond myself.