ZHENG: When we die

Propergandist

This Saturday, I went back to Taft, the Watertown, Conn. boarding school where I had spent a year as an exchange student, to attend a memorial service for Frederick “Ferdie” Wandelt, the admissions director who recruited me. He had passed away in July due to complications resulting from cancer.

The service was well-organized and well-attended. Hundreds of alumni flocked back to the school to pay their respects. Family members and colleagues described Ferdie as a family man, a school man and someone who devoted his entire life to Taft. Upon graduating from college, he returned to the boarding school to work in the admissions office, where he stayed for the next 40 years of his life. They talked about how much he loved his job as an educator and his lifelong goal of bringing diverse groups of students from all over the world to U.S. boarding schools.

I am a product of his endeavors. I remember being interviewed by him six years ago as a clueless Chinese high school student who had zero ambitions of coming to America for college. It’s safe to say that if weren’t for this man, I wouldn’t be where I am now. Yet I hardly knew him — my memories of him are vague at best, and I must admit that I made the trip more out of a feeling of obligation than genuine gratitude.

As I looked around me in the huge tent where the service was being held, I wondered what relationship each guest had with Ferdie — was he a dear friend? A classmate? The admissions officer who had signed their acceptance letter? During those two hours, all of us in attendance recalled in our own minds our interactions with this man during his 65 years of existence, limited or extensive, insignificant or life changing. If one’s thoughts and emotions could solidify and become visible, I imagined a massive, colorful cloud of memories ballooning from the center of the Taft campus, extending into the air.

After all, people say that how you are remembered after your death is the ultimate measure of whether you’ve lived a meaningful existence. Those who are deeply missed by many people are deemed to have spent their time on Earth wisely. Conversely, those who are quickly forgotten or become the target of much spite are said to have wasted their gift of life.

Yet the atheist in me is skeptical. If there is no afterlife, and everything simply fades to black like an eternal slumber, and our individual consciousness dissipates into nothingness, why should we care about how we are remembered, or the world as we leave it? The idea — that how you’re remembered defines your life­­ — is more the preoccupation of the rememberer than that of the remembered.

This is a deeply cynical view. As I consider the different career and life options that await me at the end of senior year — admittedly limited for a humanities major — my mind sometimes brings me to my own eventual memorial service. What do I want people to say about me? “Xiuyi contributed immensely to the growth of our company.” “Xiuyi will be sorely missed by his 45 cats.” Why should I care?

Perhaps the answer is this: I care not because I want flowers laid in front of my grave. I care because people will remember me for what I did for them, and it’s worthwhile to do something for others.

To most of us, death could not seem more distant. However, as we make important and consequential decisions about our careers, it might be useful to think about what we want to have accomplished by the end of our lives. As Yalies, our career options may appear limited to Goldman Sachs and BCG, a culmination of the ambitions we harbor and the expectations we carry.

Yet we should ask: In what ways can we best touch the lives of others? Perhaps then our eyes will be less clouded by the allure of prestige, and we will be able to do more with the limited years that we have.

When Ferdie recruited me from my high school in Shanghai, he probably didn’t think about whether I would attend his memorial service years later or how I would remember him. He picked me out of that small interview room because he thought I could bring something to Taft, and that I would benefit from a Taft education. I did, and that’s all that mattered.

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