If you died now, how would you be remembered? What would you aspire to be your epitaph?
Once, I thought that a good end to life would being being able to sing with integrity the opening verse of the traditional Irish song The Parting Glass:
Of all the money e’er I had, I spent it in good company;
And all the harm I’ve ever done, alas was done to none but me;
And all I’ve done for want of wit, to memory now I can’t recall,
So fill me to the parting glass, goodnight and joy be with you all.
“Wouldn’t that be a grand ‘goodbye’?” I thought. Wouldn’t it be good to be able say, with honesty, that one hadn’t done much harm in the world? Wouldn’t it be reassuring to feel one had only done stupid things because of a simple want of wit? Wouldn’t it be a happy state of mind to be unable to recall all of the careless or hurtful things one had done?
The much loved English actor Paul Eddington, who died of cancer in 1995, was asked in an interview broadcast shortly before his death how he would like to be remembered. He responded:
A journalist once asked me what I would like my epitaph to be and I said I think I would like it to be, ‘He did very little harm’. And that’s not easy. Most people seem to me to do a great deal of harm. If I could be remembered as having done very little [harm], that would suit me.
Eddington’s assessment that most people do a great deal of harm seems closer to the truth than the thought that one could not recall the wrong things one had done and that the wrongdoings had only been committed for want of wit.
The Year 7 students I teach have been strongly attracted by the idea of “karma.” The Buddhist ideas of samsara, the cycle of life and death, and reincarnation, capture their imagination much more readily than the Christian ideas of Heaven and Hell. The students have a strong sense of justice, a strong sense that people should be rewarded for their actions. Want of wit would be no excuse in their scheme of life and death.
Perhaps younger people are more black and white in their views, simpler in their understanding, less tolerant of what they perceive to be hypocrisy. Those same young people would find integrity in the words of Paul Eddington and question the sincerity of those of us who might take refuge in the sentiments of The Parting Glass.