If you are fortunate, you will have at least one high school or college professor who contributed immeasurably to your life. I can recall one college professor, Fr. P., a brilliant, witty Jesuit who taught one of the most popular classes on campus: Moral Philosophy. In all my years in the academe, he was the only professor to receive warm applause on the first day of class and a heartfelt and resounding standing ovation at the end of the semester — bringing him and eventually us to tears.
Although he was advanced in his age, his gray hair notwithstanding, he was a youthful as any undergraduate student. He was lively, engaged, and walked with a bounce in his step; and he was always smiling. He began the course with a dramatic moment: he placed on oversized off-white safari hat with a leather band on his head. The sight of this diminutive priest with a large hat, making him appear like some humanoid lamp, elicited hearty chuckles from the students. Despite his comical appearance, Fr. P. addressed us in a serious tone: “For the rest of the semester I will be your guide through the vast jungle of life. Although I have traveled through it many times, there are still many parts that are unknown. The paths we will walk on are generally narrow ones, carved out by the footsteps of many students that have preceded you. Yet, there are many paths that have not been thoroughly explored; moreover, there are many paths awaiting to be made…” Fr. P. explained that his role as a guide was not to know the answer to every question we asked, but to lead us the foundational knowledge and values that would help us ask the right questions and learn where and how to seek the right answers. He took off his hat, and our fascinating journey of discovery began.
One day, after a engaging discussion on mortality, he turned to the class and captivated us with this lesson: “I want each of you to write your obituary — and live your life inspired by it; if you do this correctly, you will never get lost.” Unfortunately, back then we were sophomores, wise fools, and not having enough wisdom and life experience, we thought that this was a routine homework assignment to be completed in an hour, crossed it off the day’s to-do list, and then promptly forgotten. But the truth is, that homework assignment has pleasantly haunted me throughout my life because it underscores one of life’s great truisms: you are your choices. It is that obituary that I wrote as a young man that has remained mostly unchanged decades later. Like a reliable compass, it has guided my life, through calm and tempest-tossed seas, to bring me to the steady shores that I now walk on. Now with the wisdom of age, I can appreciate the tremendous gift that Fr. P. gave each of us. Perhaps, this was the source of his warm smile: I am giving you something so precious, but it will take you years to find out how important it is, as you discover yourself and the world around you.
I suppose if Fr. P. were still teaching now, given that education has been transformed by the digital revolution, he might approach this exercise a little differently. Perhaps, today, he would say, “Write your word cloud, and live your life inspired by it. ” But no matter how you write it, as obituary or word cloud, it will be your guide through the jungle. And as Fr. P. promised, you will never get lost.
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