October 13, 2018
Memory, tears, laughter, and gratitude – J. Barry Vaughn – 40th reunion of the Harvard class of 1978
My dear, fellow . . . AARP members . Returning to Harvard for our fortieth reunion makes me wonder if we have aged like a fine wine or if we’re really just long past our sell by date. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, so I suppose that means that we are close to the Promised Land, although I’m not sure whether I find that comforting or frightening!
I have had the opportunity to speak at two previous memorial services. That reminds me of the story that Peter Gomes used to tell about Zsa Zsa Gabor’s fifth husband. On their wedding night he said to her, “My dear, I know what to do, but I’m not sure I can make it interesting.”
My job, however, is not to say something interesting but to commemorate and honor the ninety-one members of the Class of 1978 who have been promoted from this life to the next. In the process of doing that, I hope I can say something that you will find helpful or hopeful.
As we gather to remember our deceased classmates I anticipate three reactions: Memory, tears, and laughter. Memory and tears are obvious, but why laughter? Laughter is often a sign of discomfort. For most of our lives we have been told that we were the best and the brightest. But mortality awaits all of us, even the best and the brightest.
As Shakespeare said,
Golden lads and lasses must
Like chimney-sweepers come to dust.
In the days when the earth was cooling and we were undergraduates we were effectively immortal. Nothing could touch us. But in these days of our fortieth reunion as we look back at our past selves, those good-looking, athletic young men and women with all their mental faculties intact, I would not be at all surprised if we laugh a bit as we compare them to our present selves, with our painful joints, our spotty memories, and our bifocals.
The purpose of this service, however, is to turn our attention to our deceased classmates because they represent our future selves. Immortality is long gone, and some day our names will be read out in Memorial Church. If that provokes a lump in the throat and a sinking feeling, then you have grasped the point of the lesson. But I think a chuckle might be appropriate, too. Only the most imaginative and morbid undergrad ever envisioned herself one day sitting in Memorial Church commemorating deceased classmates at her fortieth reunion. Well, the joke is on her!
But I think laughter may be a healing and perhaps even holy response to our dilemma. They say that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly and that hell is a grim place where laughter is never heard. So if you laugh a little today, you are in good company.
We are also here to remember. At our twenty-fifth reunion I suggested that the opposite of remembering is not forgetting but dismembering. To remember is to reconnect ourselves with those people, places, and things that made us who we are. And surely that is what a reunion and a memorial service are all about.
The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said, “I am convinced that we should solve many things if we went into the streets and uncovered our griefs, which perhaps would prove to be but one sole common grief, and joined together in be weeping them. . . . The chiefest sanctity of a temple is that it is a place to which men and women go to weep in common.”
This is a place and a time for tears. Grief is the barometer of love. Those who love much also weep much. So if you cry today, then be assured that you have loved well.
But tears also heal by being an acknowledgement of our shortcomings, harsh words said, kind words unsaid, the failure to seek or offer forgiveness. If the reason for your tears is that you need to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation to someone, then I urge you not to delay. And if the person from whom you are estranged is one of those we commemorate today, then I still do not believe it is too late. My faith teaches me that we are one with those who have gone before us. Even if you do not share my faith, go to some wise person you trust and confess your need for forgiveness. It is never too late to do the right thing.
And during this reunion I am sure that you will also remember some of the great teachers we had as undergraduates. Harvard is a place of great teachers. Our dear, departed Peter Gomes was one of them. And he did some of his best teaching not in a lecture hall or even in this church, but in conversations over lunch or dinner. You may also think of John Finley or Edwin Reischauer or a host of others.
But I want to suggest that some of our best and most important teachers never held a named chair or even received tenure. The ninety-one classmates who have gone before us may be some of our most important teachers.
By their lives and even more by their deaths they have taught us some of life’s most important lessons: Do not delay to do a good deed or say a kind word. Never hesitate to forgive or even more importantly to seek forgiveness. Life is short, and we are here to bear one another’s burdens and to bring as much happiness to others as we can. They are also our teachers because as we remember them, they force us to ask ourselves: How do we want to be remembered?
In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks talks of “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” “The resume virtues are . . . the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest, or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” (Brooks, The Road to Character)
The resume virtues are the things that help us get to the top of the greasy pole of success; the eulogy virtues are the character traits that make life worth living. The resume virtues help us make a living, but the eulogy virtues are what we need to make life rich and meaningful.
We are good at the resume virtues. After all, that’s how we got into Harvard! But as we grow older, the resume virtues become less important and the eulogy virtues become more important. I was struck by how the eulogy virtues were held up and lauded by the remembrances of our deceased classmates:
- One roommate was remembered as “a gentle soul . . . funny, engaging, and good-humored.”
- “Her untimely death leaves a hole in the world as she had so much left to give her family, her community, and all of us,” reads the remembrance of another classmate.
- Another wrote, she was “as true a friend as one could have.”.
- A doctor is described as “a loving and caring man who would go above and beyond for his family, friends, and patients.”
- And another classmate was said to be, “a paragon . . . of humility, hard work, and social conscience.”
In conclusion, I urge you to enjoy this fortieth reunion. Remember who you were and how that has made you the person you are today. Honor the departed with your memories, tears, and laughter. And I also urge you to practice one more of the “eulogy virtues”: Be grateful.
Grateful for the men and women we remember, grateful for this university, grateful for the friends gathered here; and grateful for the road that has brought you here, whether it has been rough or smooth. For we are all the recipients of grace upon grace. And we have all been given far more than we deserve.
Finally, say a prayer to the God you believe in or even to the God you do not believe in that when your name is read out in this church it will be your eulogy virtues that are uppermost in the minds of those who remember and give thanks for you. Amen.