“How will I be remembered?”
I repeated the question silently to refocus my thoughts. The
question, just like the surroundings, made me uncomfortable. I did not like cemeteries.
To ease my anxiety, I thought back to the first time I was asked that question. It was a little over two years ago. I was deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia hiking with a man I barely knew. We were taking a break from our ascent of a rugged mountain. I was sitting on a massive rock perilously close to the edge of a steep cliff. Peering down from my seat atop the boulder, through a veil of rising fog, I could see a river rushing through jagged rocks, creating a torrent of white water hundreds of feet below. Since I am afraid of heights, my bird’s-eye view of the gorge was more unsettling than
awe inspiring. I could have never been mistaken for an outdoorsman— I had rarely ventured out of Philadelphia. It was my first real hike. The climb up the severe slope of the mountain had practically drained me of my already limited supply of energy. And if struggling with the unnatural conditions was not enough, I felt that the question the hiker asked was intrusive.
“What do you want to be remembered for, Jack?”
“I want to be remembered for living a successful life,” I responded.
I had met Benny Price only two days before the nature trek. At the time I didn’t realize it, but this was one of many questions he would ask that helped to change my life.
“Well, what makes a person successful?” he asked.
I paused and thought about my definition of success. That should be easy to answer. In virtually every way the world measures success I was successful. At forty-five years old, my resume reflected a career chock-full of achievements worthy of someone twenty years my senior. I had reached some lofty career goals at a very early age practicing a fanatical work ethic. While I climbed the ladder of success, I had received minimal support from others. I did it on my own. I made mistakes, but who doesn’t in the pursuit of their desires? To quote Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” Wanting to hum
the melody and feeling a deep self-appreciation for all of my ladderclimbing accomplishments, I responded, “I would define a successful person as someone who has attained all of their goals.”
“All of their goals?” Benny asked without a pause.
“Yes, all of them. Otherwise the person would’ve failed,” I answered without thinking.
“Have you reached all of your goals, Jack?” he asked, personalizing the question.
I almost laughed out loud. I had virtually everything I had coveted. To almost any objective onlooker, I appeared to have it all. But as I started to answer the senior backpacker’s query, my usual state of supreme confidence was somehow shaken. I was sensing the pangs of self-doubt—something was still missing from my record of accomplishments. Smiling, I answered,
“No, I haven’t achieved all of my goals—yet.”
“So that would make you a failure.”
This angered me. How could a near-stranger imply I was a failure? I leaned forward and swatted a gnat from in front of my
face trying to disguise my irritation. In that pause I realized I had defined myself as a failure in my response. Wanting to understand my inner conflict, I asked myself, What’s missing when I have it all? The answer hit me as hard as the rock I was perched on. I wasn’t satisfied; I didn’t have it all.
I wanted more. More money, more power, and more prestige.
How could I be a success when there was so much more I coveted and could achieve and acquire? Until I literally had it all, I would feel like I was a failure, something I was not ready to admit to Benny
or anyone else.
“No, I’m not a failure,” I said sharply, sitting straight up on the uneven surface of the boulder to reinforce my retort. “I’ve achieved a lot in my life. You’ve seen my resume.”
“But you can’t post your resume on a tombstone,” he said, allowing a smile as he turned away to look down into the deep
gorge. “When will you believe you’re successful?”
In my thoughts I could see my tombstone emblazoned with
the words SUCCESSFUL FAILURE, with tattered pages of my resume posted on it. The thought was comical, a grave marker for the humor section of Reader’s Digest, but that was how I honestly felt. Sneaking a glance, I was glad to see his attention was turned away from me toward the gorge. There was no way I could hide the internal turmoil etched on my face. Still struggling after realizing I was a failure, I countered with a conclusive tone to end the cross-examination.
“I’m still working on getting everything I want out of life. You’ll be the first to know when I do.”
What the old guy was ignoring was the life behind my impressive resume. Or maybe he did see. I’d dedicated my life to the inflexible pursuit of success by any means. To keep focused on my ruthless quest, I had placed blinders on my thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. My tsunami of cravings didn’t require a conscience, only direction. Just like the churning white water in the river far below, the rapid current of the life I had created released waves of want that rolled over any impediments that stood in the way, drowning anyone not prepared to try my course. The only place safe for others in my life was behind me. Otherwise, they would be washed away. I had one speed and direction—full greed ahead!
But were any of my self-gratifying, greed-induced accomplishments worthy enough to be affectionately recalled? While I did not like it, the answer was clear. Despite all of my efforts, I had failed to
achieve anything worth remembering.
As I waited to see if his interrogation had finally ended, I realized that being memorable had not been something I sought in life. That would be up to the opinion of others, which meant nothing to me. I was more concerned about my welfare, not what anyone else thought of my actions. The gift of life was a pursuit of wealth I didn’t have to share. It was a choice I had made many years earlier.
Breaking the brief silence Benny looked at me and said with sincere concern, “Jack, be careful what you want—you just might get it.”
• • •
How do I want to be remembered? Over two years had passed since that hike, but the question remained open, awaiting an honest response. I was now standing under the cover of a cold, gray Virginia sky, preparing to finally answer the hiker’s question—knowing he would not hear my reply. As I bowed my head removing his casket from my line of sight, I recalled what he said to me in our final few moments together. “You’ll be remembered for what you gave in life—not what you took.”
I slowly raised my head to see the wooden box holding his
remains. I understood how his guidance and friendship had changed me. My answer bore little resemblance to my earlier reply. I want to be remembered for the way I am now, not the way I was.
It is possible to change for the better, I thought, glancing up into the gloomy sky. I’m living proof. If Jack Oliver can change, anyone can.
But could others see how I had changed? Benjamin Franklin Price would no longer bear witness to the dramatic change. Only a few standing in the crowd knew the old me. So, while they could attest to my transformation, the people I loved, my family, were far away, unwilling to see the remarkable changes I had made in my life.
I had to accept that their memories of me would never change. I had taken too long.
As I returned my gaze toward Benny’s casket, another question came to mind.
• • •
“How did I get here?”
The graveside rites had commenced. In a few moments, I would eulogize my best friend. Our time together had been relatively brief, but time was not important. He had saved my life.
As I stood in the light drizzle and chill of the March morning with over three hundred of his family and friends huddled closely around the grave site, I recalled a gift he had given to me. The gift was something he created, making it all the more valuable, especially now that he was gone. At first glance it did not look like anything special—a few printed words and a photo tucked into a wooden
frame. You can buy something similar at card shops. But his gift had a special purpose. The words are printed in green ink on a pale parchment background surrounded by a dark olive border. The green text appears to grow out of the paper like early spring grass fighting to survive. The small size of the print requires you to look closely, echoing the way he had reminded me to look at all words. I am sure he intended it that way.
Above the text is a photo he took of a sunrise ascending above the fog-covered mountains of southwest Virginia. You can almost feel the rays of the new dawn’s light touching your face as the thick mist slowly rises and fades into the brightening sun. The gift sits on my desk occupying an exclusive place by several pictures of my children. The grouping of photos and Benny’s gift serve as a reminder of why I am here.
“You’re here not by chance but by God’s choosing,” begins the text. He especially loved the title, “Just Think.” I had heard him use that phrase to open many a sentence in our conversations over the
past two years. “Just think” wasn’t just a habitual expression. He meant it. I recalled what he said when he gave me the gift.“Just think, Jack, the first step in making us who we are is a
thought,” he said, his eyes twinkling while the right corner of his lip curled slightly upward into a half-smile. “We know the difference between right thoughts and wrong thoughts. It doesn’t take a genius—just being honest with the person who looks back at you from the mirror.”
The man in the mirror I saw this morning had changed. However, at this moment, looking at his casket poised above the grave, my thoughts were scattered. They did not feel right or wrong. The last time I saw him was at his cabin ten days ago. Now he was gone. I missed him.
The light rain continued to fall through the leafless trees, hitting the rugged mountain soil, and provided a calming, natural melody for all of us gathered in the cemetery. My mind swirled with the memories of the many life experiences he had shared with me.
Turning the complex to simple was his gift.
“Thinking should be a simple process, but we create complexity in our thoughts, confusing how we see the world around us. Our imagination distorts our vision. What we see isn’t real, but an image of what we think we see. The result is that we tell the most harmful
lie we can ever tell—a lie to ourselves,” Benny said.
I had always thought complexity was the way to go in life. I never wanted to be accused of being simple minded. I believed thinking was a private matter, not something to be openly discussed with others. I had asked him, “Isn’t what you say or do more important
than what you think?”
“What determines your words and deeds, Jack? Your thoughts! The quality of your thoughts determines the quality of your life.
What you think changes the world,” he responded. “Think confused, live confused.”
A shift in the wind blew the light drizzle into my face, bringing me back to the service. The sky continued to darken, lowering a
forbidding gray shroud over the Virginia hilltop. The sadness was almost unbearable. With my head bowed and eyes shut as the minister began to speak, I could not imagine how I would fill the void Benny’s death had created. I recalled him questioning me about life
and death the last time I saw him alive.
“Death shouldn’t be a surprise—it’s inevitable. Death is a natural part of life. Why should we fear it?”
“Because what happens after we die is unknown,” I responded.
“Why fear the unknown? Life is change, and what happens to us from one second to the next is unknown. If you’re afraid of the
unknown you’re afraid to live. Death is a known step in our life—it’s part of the process of living.” He sat upright—relaxed—speaking in a voice void of any anxiety. Despite the ravages of a disease that allowed no survivors, Benny did not appear to be a person resigned to the inevitable.
“We don’t get a second chance with death,” I said, unable to hide my fear of the unknown. “It’s conclusive, and that’s frightening
“Nothing happens by chance. Don’t be frightened, Jack. Death is not an end, but a beginning.”
“I wish I was brave enough to think like that,” I said.
“It doesn’t take courage to die—it takes courage to live. Every second is a new beginning, even when it’s your last. I know I’m nearing the finish line,” he said smiling.
“You’re going to be okay,” I said, attempting to reassure myself as much as him.
“Death can be our greatest teacher if we accept life is impermanent.”
“What can you learn from dying?” I asked, puzzled at the idea.
“You learn the value of life! Value every moment as if it were
your last, Jack. Then you won’t be afraid of dying—you’ll live a
fearless life with no regrets.”
My attention turned back to the graveside as I heard the minister say, “He lived a courageous life.” As he read a summary of the
many contributions my friend had made to the world, I suddenly grasped where Benny’s resolve to live so effectively came from—it
was in the discipline of his thoughts. While I had contemplated some of the great philosophic questions like Who am I? and What is my
purpose? on rare occasions in brief moments of self-doubt, he had
lived those questions moment by moment, day to day, seeking the
answers. He had the courage to question his life and live responsibly
without fear. Questioning your life demanded courage.
The more I recalled our time together I realized almost every memory I had of Benny involved a question. “Questions are more
important than answers. How can you find answers if you don’t
ask questions? Ask the right questions, and you’ll discover the right
A life built on questions wouldn’t have made sense to me two years ago. He called this practice of self-interrogation the integral
part of his “questionable life.”
“I’m the first person who should question my life,” he said. “My life is my life. What I think, say, or do is my responsibility. How
will I know if I’m on the right path unless I constantly and honestly
question my life?”
I felt the chill of the northwesterly breeze filtering up the steep hill over monuments and grave markers as the minister read, “Lord,
make me an instrument of your peace.” The prayer by Saint Francis
of Assisi was one of Benny’s favorite readings. Hearing the words
love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy reminded me of how I had
changed. “For it is in the giving that we receive” the minister read.
The sins of my past still haunted me. For most of my life I had been
guided by asking, What can I take? when I should have asked, What can I give?
Benny’s questions had redirected my own questionable life. But I had regrets for the many wasted years. I wondered if I could ever
overcome my guilt for all those misguided years of my past. I could hear Benny saying to me, “Everything in life has a reason and a purpose. Living isn’t a game of chance. Your life is yours to live, not wager.”
I had gambled with my life and nearly lost it. By telling me his life experiences, Benny had enlightened me. And learning had been
painful. Being disciplined by the things life throws at you was not what I would have chosen as a method of learning.
“Pain teaches,” Benny had said in that initial hike in what now felt like a lifetime ago. He was right—I had to learn the hard way. But that’s life, I thought as I heard the minister nearing the conclusion of his remarks.|
My mind was in the past. Struggling to stay in the present, I took a deep breath, and as I slowly exhaled I remembered what he had said about the delicate balance between intention and attention.
“The learning is in the journey. If you focus on what you want, you’ll miss what you have. The here and now is where we live. Live for the journey not the destination.”
The minister concluded with a brief prayer. My heart was pounding. I took another deep breath and looked down at the notes I had written on an index card. As I lifted my head at the end of the prayer, I looked at Benny’s wife, Ann. She smiled a warm, half-smile.
I looked to her side and saw our friend, John Helms. He made eye contact, nodding his head as if to say, “I’m here with you, Jack.”
How did I get here? again leapt from the whirlwind of my
thoughts. Every ending is a new beginning, Benny had said. I
immediately felt at peace in the moment. This wasn’t an end, but a beginning. This moment was “to be.” It wasn’t by chance—there was a purpose. I had been led here to find the real me. With the help of others I had changed.
The musical director stepped forward a few feet away from me. I would speak afterward. As she sang the words “On a hill faraway,” my thoughts returned to what had brought me here.
My quest had been launched with a simple question—a question that had changed my life.