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Why My Mental Illness Forced Me to Focus On 'Eulogy Values' Not 'Resume Values'

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A few months ago, I sat in my psychiatrist’s office and told her how unmotivated and apathetic I felt. I used words like “indifferent,” “passionless” and “uninspired.” At the time, I was experiencing a total loss of heart, and felt desperate to feel alive again.

“I just don’t see the point anymore,” I told her, “Why should I even bother? I’m done with trying. I quit.” 

Then, I told her how I didn’t understand what was happening, and how confused I felt because my whole life, I had considered myself to be a goal driven and highly motivated kind of person. Growing up, I had been a classic overachiever, a straight-A student with a type A personality and perfectionist tendencies.

That day, my psychiatrist made an observation that would change everything. She told me that over the course of our many appointments, she had noticed that most of my motivation stemmed from external circumstances, rather than internal ones.

What did she mean by that?

Referencing David Brooks’ book, “The Road to Character,” my psychiatrist explained to me that each of us possess two different sets of virtues. She said resume virtues are the external ones, and the ones most valued in our society. Professional achievements, for instance. Outstanding grades and academic success also fall into that category, alongside any other skill that gives you fame, wealth, status or a big fat paycheck (and a whole lot of anxiety, if you ask me).

Eulogy virtues, on the other hand, are the aspects of your character others will most likely remember when you’re gone, the ones that will be talked about at your funerals. They include kindness, humility and bravery.

After my psychiatrist finished her explanation and leaned back in her chair, waiting for my reaction, it hit me: my whole life, I had focused on the things that didn’t really matter in the end.

In his NYT op-ed piece, Brooks writes that we all know the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume ones. And yet, “Our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light.”

We are taught how to build a successful career, but how many of us are taught how to build inner character?

For the most part of my life, I lived for external achievement, and that was the result of the culture I grew up in, the culture of the “Big Me,” as Brooks kindly puts it. Like many others, I grew up in a world where social media dictates us to “broadcast a highlight reel” of our lives and where the most important things seem to be achieving financial security and career success rather than a peace of mind and emotional stability.

But after I fell ill, things changed. Being sick forced me to reconsider my relationship with my performance goals as well as external ambitions. It forced me to focus on my eulogy values rather than my resume ones. Because when I was sick, I didn’t have my outstanding grades, I didn’t have the fancy awards or a stellar job or a volunteering position. When I was severely depressed, highly suicidal and stuck in the hospital, it felt like I had nothing, including no label or title tied to my name. But to my surprise, I discovered that whether or not I was sick, I still had my determination, my courage and my internal strength. I still had myself, and I realized I would always be me, no matter the circumstances. 

In a way, being sick taught me an important lesson: we are raised in a culture and society that tells us if we work hard enough, we will get where we want to be. But life is unpredictable and uncertain, and we have less control than we think over our life circumstances. But how we choose to live each day, regardless of what happens – that we can control.

I didn’t choose to be sick — I never wished to have a mental illness and I never asked for a collection of depressive symptoms. But being sick gave me the opportunity to reset my priorities, and allowed me to focus on what really matters in life.

I have decided when I die, I don’t want to be remembered of my number of academic achievements. I don’t want to be remembered as someone who focused so much on her grades that she neglected her relationships with friends and family. I don’t want to be remembered as someone who worked extra long hours at the expense of her sanity. And I don’t want to be remembered as someone who measured her worth based on her performance or abilities. No, I want to be remembered as someone who was brave, compassionate and resilient.

It’s crazy to think of how much we take for granted, and how much life can take away from us. But the most important thing I learned in the past year, is that no matter what life gives or takes from me, I can still choose to find a purpose, cultivate meaning and discover new perspectives. I can still allow myself to live.

Because in the end, it’s how we choose to live each day that matters the most.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via VolodymyrKozin.

Originally published: September 15, 2017
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