Issue July 9, 2013

Write your own obit

I was already agonized, de-cluttering my living space, when I learned that friends were mourning the unofficial death of Burrell Farnsley. For hours, Facebook blazed with sorrowful praise for the occasional candidate, a son of legendary Mayor Charles Farnsley. Mercifully, the rumor died after Burrell surfaced alive near City Hall. But not everyone there was entirely relieved. Via Facebook, the mayor’s spokesman grieved a monumental mistake. “Holy shit!” wrote Chris Poynter. “I told everyone at the mayor’s senior staff meeting this morning that he was dead.”

Who knew the last Monday in June would be so dark and enlightening?

I was in a morbid mood because the only way I can clear my clutter is to convince myself that my clock will stop sooner rather than later. And it would be unconscionable to subject my survivors to such a monstrous mess. The embarrassment would kill me if I weren’t already dead. So I started sifting through my possessions, making decisions only I could make: what to keep, donate or discard. The process reminded me of writing an obituary — exquisitely difficult and subjective.

Amid my existential chaos, I was relieved to learn it would be premature to memorialize Burrell. He can write his own obituary, and I can write mine. Each of us is an expert on ourselves; thus we’re uniquely qualified to reveal the meaning of our lives. Otherwise, the Herculean task falls to our distraught families and — if we’re famous or infamous enough — an overwhelmed reporter.

There are good reasons to write your own obituary even if you aren’t a control freak. Nobody will question whether it’s your desired self-portrait. The control freaks who survive you will find other opportunities to clash. Ambiguous final wishes may foment a feud. And your will may be contested if it offends anyone’s sincerely held sense of entitlement. It might be wise to urge your loved ones to forgive one another. The less control we perceive, the harder we squeeze.

There’s a serious reason to write your own obit — even if your family doesn’t pay to publish it. Use it now, as a status report, to see what’s missing. There’s unfinished business, maybe an incomplete bucket list. If you’re less than pleased, rest assured that you’re a work in progress until you rest in peace. Take the time to redefine yourself and your destiny.

Imagine your fantasy life-well-lived and how to fulfill it. Consider how you’d like to be remembered. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” At the risk of differing with my spiritual leader, people do remember extraordinarily loving and hateful words and deeds. But how we make others feel is a vital, defining question. Feelings tend to be contagious.

People make us feel important when they disable their gadgets long enough to have human interactions. A wise woman once told me that people forget possessions — but remember their travels. “We’re goin’ to Mexico and we’re leavin’ the men and dogs behind — if there’s a difference,” she said.

Blessed are the destinations and people known as a jolly good time. That’s how the Beatles’ George Harrison wanted to be — and is — remembered. Likewise, Burrell is regarded as a blast of sunshine. He survived rumors of his demise to luxuriate in some loving affirmations. Maybe we should celebrate one another while we’re still alive.

Take the opportunity to debunk a popular myth. Most of us are menaced by simplistic misconceptions. Perhaps we let them languish because denials sound disingenuous (like when Nixon said: “I am not a crook”).

Well, I’m gonna say this one more time. I am neither a Luddite nor a technophobe. My career requires me to engage electronics. But I’ve never owned an iPad or a laptop. I neither tweet nor Facebook. These boundaries protect my mental and physical health. They create time for me to read books like “iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold On Us.”

They liberate me from the chair — a priority, since prolonged sitting correlates with premature death. They free me to sustain meaningful relationships, listen and think.

Until further notice, let my obit reflect that I always felt beloved and wanted to live — even when depressed — if only to find out what would happen next.