What’s Your Measure?
By Matthew Joyce
Niccolo was dying and he knew it.
Whether he knew I was there or whether he considered me some sort of feverish vision I couldn’t tell, but he spoke with me convincingly as if he knew I was standing in the room.
“Don’t make the mistake I did,” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I measured my life by success.”
“What’s wrong with that?” I said as I looked from his bedside to the finely appointed room with its ornate hand-carved furniture and oil paintings showing portraits of his family.
“Look at me,” Niccolo commanded in a voice much accustomed to giving orders. “My body is ill and no physician’s tricks can save me. I’ve come to terms with that. It’s my life I’m having a harder time with.”
I turned to face him and looked into his glassy brown eyes. “Why?” I asked as I widened my gaze to include his pale, sweaty face and matted hair. That he was having this conversation at all was a marvel given the advanced stage of his condition.
From somewhere he summoned his strength and inched himself up against the feather pillows. Then in a steady voice he said,
“I pursued success with a hearty vigor and by anyone’s standards I achieved it. From nigh on nil I built a thriving business with scores of employees, my own merchant fleet, and interests on three continents. I’ve villas and estates and fineries. Yet as I reflect upon what I’ve wrought I see how little it’s worth. These are not the riches of life. They’re accomplishments and rewards, but now I see how little value—”
A coughing spell seized him and his body convulsed in throes and shivers. Somehow he managed to cover his mouth with a white linen cloth that I had not noticed before since it was the same color as the sheets. But when he removed the handkerchief from his mouth there was no mistaking it. Bright red drops of blood-stained spittle showed how deeply his illness now gripped him.
I anticipated he would be too weak to continue but he surprised me and resumed where he left off. “I realize now that success was the wrong measure to choose for my life. The real riches are not in a position achieved, a contract signed, or a new ship purchased. They are not in this fine house nor the staff that attends me. The real riches are in the things I was too busy to notice.
“The real riches are in the little moments. What I treasure now is the day that I first my showed my son and his friends how to tie their knots. And even more the day I taught my son how to sail and the day my wife and I picnicked in the vineyard.”
Niccolo paused, lost in a reverie I didn’t care to interrupt.
Then, after a minute to collect himself, he resumed. “I see now how significant was the moment I saved the captain’s life when our ship was nearly lost at sea. I used to think that moment was the turning point that launched my career. Now I realize its significance was far simpler and yet more profound. The captain lived to return to his family. He lived to touch the lives of so many people.”
I nodded and said nothing as I took in the meaning of his words.
“If I may impart to you any wisdom I’ve gained from this lifetime, it is this,” he said. “Do not confuse success with significance. Measure your life not by what you accomplish or acquire. Measure your life by the impact you have upon others.”
With that said he lapsed into another coughing spell. This time when it ended his body sagged deeper into the feather bed and the firmness of his presence began to fade.
“I’m ready to go,” he managed to say between breaths. “What do I do now?”
“Just relax,” I explained as I took his sweaty hand in mine.
As I did so he looked at me with fearless eyes and smiled a boyish grin. “Something new to explore,” he said.
Success and Significance
Niccolo was a Genoese sea captain and merchant from the 1500’s who I met while doing a soul retrieval, but his advice rings true across the centuries.
To be sure, the goals we set for ourselves and others are important. So too are our accomplishments. It’s a grand thing to celebrate our successes, be they milestones achieved like a child’s first steps, graduations from school, new skills mastered, projects completed, unions created or suffering abated.
But as Niccolo came to discover, how much more meaningful still are the moments that we enjoy alone or in the company of those we care about: Discovering a spider web glistening with morning dew. The warmth of a lover’s embrace. A mother’s overwhelming feeling of love while nursing her newborn son. A father teaching his daughter how to drive. Two friends so close they can sit comfortably together in silent companionship.
Equally significant are the lives we touch: The clients and customers we serve in business. The elderly person we hold the door for. The baby bird we return to its nest. The car we allow in front of us in a traffic jam. The people we compliment, thank, and aid with a generosity of spirit. These moments too have their own significance.
As moments we share with one another they are an equally valid measure of our lives.
What’s Your Measure?
So I ponder how I measure my life. Do I mark the passing days in accomplishments and things I acquire, or do I tally the richness of experiences I’ve enjoyed and the lives of people I’ve touched in some way?
We don’t need to be on our death beds to ask such these important questions. And while there is no single answer for how to measure our lives, our choices determine how we assess the richness of our lives today, tomorrow, and at the end of our days.
I count my life as wealthy beyond measure. And if you’re reading this and pondering the successes and significant moments in your own life, then I hope I can count myself as being even better off for having helped you to do so.
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