Living Your Values

by Susan L. Schoenbeck

Published by Spirituality & Health Magazine [Nov/Dec 2010]

A Nurse Discovers That Most of Us Don’t Know Which Values Matter Most to Our Parents — or Even Ourselves

When my mother was dying and we both knew the end was near, we talked late at night after my father had gone to bed. Although reticent in nature, my mother had no reason to hold back anymore, and she asked me to compose a note to be handed out at her funeral. This message would express her parting thoughts; what she most wanted family and friends to remember about her.

I’m a nurse; as a profession we learn to develop the art of listening. Nurses create a shared, safe place where people can utter their most personal thoughts without worry of being judged. So as my mother spoke, I captured in writing the way in which she wanted to be remembered by generations to follow.

Our conversation was her version of her life, and her memories were sweet. She expressed how grateful she was for all the opportunities she’d had in life. She laughed as she told of times when she was mischievous, times I knew nothing about. As she looked back, the way in which she remembered transformed her hard times into days that were not-so-bad and made the good times look very good. She knew death was coming soon. She had done her best. She was ready to go.

The note I ultimately handed out at her funeral reflected my mother’s memories, as well as my own recollections, cradled within her framework of contentment and peace with the world. This resulting tapestry taught me something important: what we choose to remember tells us who we are.

A Big Question That Most Can’t Answer

After my mother’s death, I began to ask friends and colleagues if they knew which values their parents wanted to be remembered for, and I quickly realized that most people find the question a real stretch. So, I began a research project I called the Remembrance Study, to find out how people wanted to be remembered and also to encourage people to contemplate the question and perhaps even start an important conversation.

I asked, “Is there something you once cherished that is now lost to you because your friend or family member died?” Occasionally, I had to remind friends that I was interested in a somewhat idealized past, not necessarily a fact-based analysis of how someone wanted to be remembered. “Forget today,” I told them. “Think of a time that now resides only in your memory.”

To expedite the process, I created a list of simple questions that depicted common values. For example, because the smell of freshly baked bread strikes a chord in many of us, I asked, “Would you remember your mother for her civic accomplishments, or would you remember her for how she baked bread? Which do you think your mother would look back on as a more valued moment?”

I sorted out and discarded the least-mentioned values. After gathering my preliminary roundtable answers from friends and colleagues, I developed a list of 110 options that were representative of the values for which someone would want to be remembered. Afterward, more than 600 people participated by placing a checkmark next to six to ten values for which they wanted to be most remembered. In addition, there were six blank spaces where a respondent could add a value not mentioned in the body of the research.

Nostalgia Paid Forward

As the study progressed, a second set of questions arose. Do we want to influence the nostalgic feelings people will have for us after we die? Can we shape their future attitude toward us by letting family and friends understand how we want to be remembered? And — perhaps most important — if we identify the values for which we want to be remembered and then share those values with others, are we more likely to embrace and reflect these identified values for the remainder of our lives?

Of course, I’m not the only one to believe that we can pay nostalgia forward. Benjamin Franklin is well known for having written down 13 values, knowing that his values would drive how he lived his life.

Based on my research, most of us (76 percent of women and 69 percent of men) want our loved ones to know the values we lived — or at least tried to live. At the same time, we may not have taken the time to really look at our values, nor have we made an effort to share them.

My experience with my mother reminded me that we all will become just a memory in the hearts and lives of those who knew us. Ben Franklin had it right: get your values written down, share them, and then live a life that matches who you have decided you are.

17 Life Values

How We Want to Be Remembered

The Remembrance Study offered a list of 110 possible life values. Each respondent was asked to choose the top six values for which he or she would want to be remembered. After gathering the responses of the 600 people who took the test, here is a snapshot of what is considered important:

  • BEING A GOOD FRIEND: This was the top choice of all age groups, except for men 65 and older. Males in this group chose honesty as their number-one value. Fifty-one percent of women and 43 percent of men chose being a good friend as how they wanted most to be remembered.
  • BEING A GOOD PARENT: Twenty-two percent of women and 12 percent of men wanted others to remember them for their good parenting skills.
  • CARE OF FAMILY: This value was highly regarded by all age groups. In our society, we not only care for our children but also our parents in their later years. Forty-three percent of women and 35 percent of men wished to be remembered for care of family.
  • CREATIVITY: Many respondents — 26 percent of the males and 20 percent of the females — reported they wanted to be remembered for their creativity.
  • EMPATHY: The ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes and to understand how another person feels is often not easy. Thirty-six percent of women and 17 percent of men hoped to be remembered for this attribute.
  • FAITHFULNESS: Men and women were closely split on this value; 29 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
  • FAIRNESS: Men seemed to care about this value more than women (29 percent to 22 percent, respectively).
  • GENEROSITY: Whether women are more generous in life than men is not known, but more women (29 percent) than men (20 percent) wanted to be remembered for this value.
  • HARD WORK: Working hard is sometimes considered an old-fashioned virtue. It was heartening to discover that hard work is viewed by men (31 percent) and women (25 percent) as a value for which they wanted others to remember them.
  • HELPING OTHERS: Women (30 percent) and men (27 percent) both valued offering a helping hand.
  • HONESTY: News of scandals and public manipulation of facts may be on the increase, but many respondents chose honesty as something for which they wanted to be remembered (37 percent of women, 33 percent of men).
  •  INTELLIGENCE/BEING SMART: Perhaps surprisingly, only 13 percent of women and 18 percent of men wanted to be remembered for their intelligence; and only 9 percent of the women and 11 percent of the men respondents chose “being smart” as how they would like to be remembered.
  • KINDNESS: While 38 percent of women chose to have their acts of kindness recognized, only 21 percent of men chose this value.
  • LOVE OF GOD, LOVE OF FELLOW MAN/WOMAN: Love of God trumped love of fellow man/woman. Thirty percent of women and 26 percent of men chose love of God, while 20 percent of women and 21 percent of men chose love of fellow man/woman.
  • TEAM PLAYER VERSUS TOUGH NEGOTIATOR: “Team player” received more checkmarks than did “tough negotiator.” Fifteen percent of men valued being a team player, compared to 11 percent of women. Only a handful of men and women chose being a tough negotiator as something for which they’d like to be remembered.
  • PATRIOTISM: Only 3 percent of women and 12 percent of men wanted to be remembered for their patriotism.
  • MAKING LOTS OF MONEY: Less than 1 percent of women and men wanted to be remembered for this accomplishment.