The “Eulogy Virtues”

A current parent who has a sophomore in college shared with me that she and her husband received a Hillel tribute from their college-aged son.  The tribute stated: “In honor of my parents for giving me an education beyond compare, and for raising me to be a positive and productive member of the Jewish community in Detroit and beyond. I love you.”

When the mother texted her son to tell him how moved she was, the son texted the following in response:

“Mom, this was the inscription I wanted to put on the donation, but it was a bit too long:

Sometimes I think about how in high school I always expected people to want to give money and participate in stuff with USY, FJA, or whatever else, just because they were a part of it at some point. Now I think that way about AEPi, HMD, AIPAC, and others.

Truth is, I understand why people don’t always care. To some, it’s just a quick couple of years in a much bigger picture. Hillel, however, gave me a foundation in Derech Eretz, Jewish life, and education that has served me to this day, and I’m confident will continue to serve me forever.

I am forever grateful to both of you for making the decision to send me there, and for complementing what I learned at school with a home that instilled all of the same. I hope that the $18 that I gave makes a difference in someone’s ability to go to Hillel, so that they may be as thankful to their parents someday as I am to you now.

I love you and am proud to be able to honor you in any way I can.”

This young man is already building immense positive character, imbued with “eulogy virtues” that David Brooks writes about in his bestselling book, The Road to Character. In the book, Brooks discusses the resume virtues that “are the skills you bring to the marketplace.” But the “eulogy virtues” are the ones talked about at your funeral:

“…whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love? We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones.”

Brooks goes on to critique a culture and an educational system that wrongly prioritize résumé virtues, that “spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

Think about it. What virtues do you want shared at your funeral when you reach the age of 120? I have never been to a funeral where someone said that the deceased wished he had worked a few more Sundays or made more business trips that took her away from her family. I’ve never heard a eulogy that talked about the size of the deceased’s house or how many suits he had.  Every eulogy invokes relationships, love, empathy, and giving to others – that “inner light” that speaks to character. It is not that the deceased’s work or work-related contributions are not stated; they are often just one small piece of the eulogy or associated with the way the deceased’s profession may have allowed him or her to be a great donor to important causes.

I agree with David Brooks that most of us do care more about the eulogy than the résumé virtues – yet we put most of our time and energy into building the résumé.  This is often because we already think we are good, or because we live in a society that seems to value the “tough guy” brusqueness it takes to get ahead. You see, on the contrary, it takes uncommon courage to be counter-cultural, and to prioritize the eulogy virtues.

Practically, both are important, but how do we make sure the eulogy virtues get at least as much attention and effort, if not more, than the others?  We often talk about their importance in equal measure, but our kids see right through the talk when they regard our actions. Take a look at our society – the short supply of the eulogy virtues in our country is fraying our societal structures. However, there is no question that when the school and home send the same messages about being good and acting good, as in the case of the Hillel graduate who so beautifully honored and paid tribute to his parents, that our eulogy virtues can assume their rightful place as our priority.






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