May 01, 2009

‘What Do You Want on Your Tombstone?’

By Dr. William Luckey *

This line from an old pizza commercial brings up an exercise in one of my management courses while studying for my MBA. What you had to do is think for a while about what you would like your epitaph to say about you. I never thought about it this way. Another way to put this exercise is to ask, "What kind of a person are you? How do you want people to remember you?"

The Catholic Church focuses a lot on sin, and rightly so. Catholics examine their consciences, or should examine their consciences, frequently. But much of what is contained in a list of sins to be checked against our thoughts and actions leaves a lot under the radar. Pope John Paul II has contributed, along with some phenomenologists such as Max Scheler and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), to examining personhood, and there are many Catholics who may or may not be sinners according to the list in the books, of which I cannot judge, but they fall short in their personhood.

The reason for this is that we generally see personhood as a static concept. We say that the unborn baby is a person, and so it is. But it is in an undeveloped stage. The personhood requires development, and the development of personhood requires that we open our hearts to others, that we have empathy, that we see ourselves as the image of the persons of the Blessed Trinity, who are known to us as complete self-giving. In short, personhood is the gift of ourselves to others.

Unfortunately in my experience, I have run into many Catholics, some of whom have professed themselves to be exemplary, who have been very short on personhood. They are self-centered, arrogant, intellectual bullies, unable to empathize, paranoid and uncaring. These folks have persecuted me and others seemingly for no other reason than that it makes them feel superior.

These things not only have spiritual consequences but economic as well. The reason that we were asked to perform this exercise in a management class is so we can examine how we treat others. Being mean and hard on others is not just plain anti-personhood for the actor himself, but it is discouraging to employees, customers, suppliers. Surgeons are notoriously compatible with this non-person model, and I wonder how many medical students have decided not to specialize in surgery due to the arrogance of those who are supposed to teach and guide them. Mean teachers, and we all have probably had experience with this, discourage academic performance. And how many mean confessors have dissuaded penitents from returning to confession. I have been mistreated by many priests, nuns and lay Catholics so that it is a miracle that I still have my Faith. (My wife says that we cannot take it out on Jesus for the faults of his followers.)

Interestingly enough, the people who do these things may not even really know that they do them, because they never truly examined their personhood—that is, how much empathy do they have, how much self-gift are they. Ultimately, John Paul says, man is meant to give and receive love, and real love is not the "love" that is mean "for the beloved’s own good." Love is the self-giving that we see in the Trinity. It requires humility, kindness, empathy, long-suffering, "living with" another.

Take the case of entrepreneurs. The myth about them is that they do what they do for money. The truth is that they never do what they do for money, and if someone does entrepreneurial activity just for the money, they will fail. Entrepreneurs take risks, raise money, usually from relatives and friends, and work their fingers to the proverbial bone with virtually no return for years, for the thing in itself; because society needs it; because it will make man’s work easier; because it needs to be done. This is true self-giving. They could be much more comfortable at a desk job, pushing papers, working 9 to 5, but instead, they go through all of this so that our lives will be better. This does not mean that they are perfect in their interpersonal relations, but if they do not have a well-developed personhood, their task will be much harder, because no one will want to work with them.

So let us all examine ourselves from the viewpoint of the epitaph. How do you want to be remembered? "Here lies Fred—a mean, backstabbing, selfish, overbearing, arrogant, inhuman creep." Or, "Here lies Fred—the most kind, generous, self-giving, hard-working, caring person one could ever meet." The choice is yours.


Dr. William Luckey is the former chairman of the department of Political Science and Economics at Christendom College, where he is currently a professor.  He holds advanced degrees in Business, Economics, Political Philosophy and Systematic Theology. He was married in 1971, has four children and 12 (soon to be 13) grandchildren, and is a Lay Dominican.

You can visit his blog entitled Catholic Truths on Economics at:

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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