What are Eulogy Virtues and Why are They Important?

eulogy virtues and resume values
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The crucial difference between a eulogy virtue and résumé virtue

A few months ago, a very good friend of mine died. It was sudden and unexpected. He was in his thirties. He was very fit (he had recently completed a marathon amongst other things) and seemed healthy. But he died in his sleep. The post-mortem was inconclusive as to his cause of death.

Unsurprisingly, his family, friends, and colleagues – like myself – were devasted. This was a combination of the shock – the fact he was young and healthy – and that he was so universally liked. This last point truly came home at his funeral. There were so many people there, from different parts of his life, all wanting to say goodbye, but also to celebrate him. And that is what we did. We remembered and appreciated the positive impact he had had on all of us. The eulogies of his brother and best friend had us laughing through our tears.

It was also very sobering. It reminded me of my mortality and posed the question, how will I be remembered?

Too busy to think about?

It seems like a morbid thing to do, to think about our own funeral, but it is an important thing to do. Thinking about the end of life changes our perspective. We can consider the demands of our busy daily lives in a different context. We can start to challenge our priorities and ask, why are we doing what we are doing?

“It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Henry David Thoreau

Yes, we are all busy. But are your actions today working towards a greater purpose? People often talk about strategy, but what about our personal strategy? What is the long-term plan for our lives? What does success in life look like for us?

When our time is done, what will be our legacy? Who will miss us? 

These are important questions. In fact, there might not be any questions more important than these. But how do we go about answering them?

The problem with life plans

The challenge with life plans is that they never seem to go to plan! Circumstances have a way of knocking our best plans into the outfield. This has certainly been my experience. Just take my career as an example. At college, I had a general idea of what I did and did not like, but I could never have predicted the journey that my career has taken. Often doors have closed upon the route I have wanted to take, only to reveal an unexpected opening. Looking back, the result has often been far better than the one I could have planned or hoped for. 

But my choices have not all been random. I have not been a rudderless yacht driven before the storm. Sailing is a good metaphor to consider. When sailing you have a destination in mind, but you must adjust your route according to the changing weather conditions. Fluctuations in the wind mean you have to constantly adjust your sails and you rarely get to sail directly towards where you want to go. You must tack back and forth, keeping an eye on your bearing, but also making small adjustments, so the waves don’t capsize you.

When sailing, one must watch the compass, while the hand is on the tiller. So in life, we need to consider our values as we make decisions. Our personal principles are our moral compass. They inform everything from the little adjustments to the big direction changes.

So have a plan or at least an idea of your destination. That is a good thing. But do not try to steer your life without a good idea of your values as well. Otherwise, you will find it hard to adjust to changing circumstances. 

What is the difference between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues?

When looking at values, particularly from an end-of-life perspective, there can be a difference in our priorities. We love to portray a certain image in our daily interactions, on our résumé or CV, or social media. We feel the pressure to convey the busy, successful, manicured beauty of life the world seems to demand.

But is that the life we truly want? Are they the people we really want to be? Do we want to be remembered for being busy? For our job title? For our holiday pictures?

David Brooks, author of The Road to Character, best summed up this dichotomy in his New York Times article, The Moral Bucket List, where he defined the difference between résumé virtues and eulogy virtues.

We live in a culture that centres on self. Self-image, self-fulfilment, self-determination. But the shift with eulogy virtues is away from selfish desires, work accomplishments, external recognition, and the accumulation of stuff. Eulogy virtues tend towards selflessness, and towards life accomplishment, internal peace, and the building of a legacy.

Eulogy virtues force us to acknowledge our weaknesses and failures. They help us move from desiring independence from others to recognising our need for inter-dependence with others. We shift our motivations from success to love, from career to calling, from competence to character.

As David Brooks notes, eulogy virtues even challenge the fundamental questions of life. It goes from “what do I want from life?” To “what does life ask of me?”

“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?” 

David Brooks

How to work out your eulogy virtues

Having had experience taking people through this process, as a coach, I can recommend that you try and write out your own eulogy. This might feel uncomfortable at first, but, if you go with the process, it can be very insightful.

As you write, remember that this is not an obituary written by somebody that does not know you. It is not the article in the paper for the eyes of the world, it is a eulogy, shared from the perspective of someone who loves you, to the key people of your life, gathered at your funeral. The person in mind should be someone who knows you well enough to call out your weaknesses as well as your strengths. To highlight how you dealt with your failures as well as your successes. Who can talk about your character and how you did things; not just your skills and what you did. 

To do this I recommend the following steps:

  • Set aside time – give yourself at least an hour of uninterrupted time
  • Find a quiet place – select an environment to help you, most importantly somewhere you will not be disturbed. 
  • Engage your emotions as well as your mind – imagine what it would be like at your funeral and use your empathy to see yourself from another’s perspective
  • Write – capture your thoughts as they come. It does not necessarily need to be coherent as a first draft
  • Reflect – once you have run out of words think about what you have written. What are the underlying virtues that define your life? Which values best encompass the themes of your story?

You might want to compare this with other ways of exploring your values. If you want some examples of other exercises then you can find them in the article: What Are Your Personal Values?

Better than an action plan

By identifying your eulogy virtues, you create your own moral bucket list. This is a bucket list beyond just personal achievements. Life goals are great, but more important are the values we live by, the things that define why we do things and how we behave as we pursue our goals, whether we achieve them or not.

So, take time to reflect on your eulogy values. How do you want to be remembered? Identify and hold onto those virtues. Keep them in mind as you dive back into the busyness of your day. They will guide you through the winds and the waves, the calms, and the storms.


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