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On December 18, 2017, I lost the most positive force in my life. My mother, Janet Theresa (Slattery) Bruns passed away peacefully after battling dementia, a stroke, and finally, a broken hip incurred by a fall. She was 88.

In his writings, Stephen Covey talks extensively about the importance of determining one’s legacy. He urges us to think deeply about how want to be seen in life, how we want to be remembered, and even encourages us to write our own obituary. This process may seem a little morbid, but it is a worthwhile exercise. It allows us to “begin with the end in mind”.

“There are certain things that are fundamental to human fulfillment. The essence of these needs is captured in the phrase; to live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy. The need to live is our physical need for such things as food, clothing, shelter, economical well-being, health. The need to love is our social need to relate to other people, to belong, to love and be loved. The need to learn is our mental need to develop and grow. And the need to leave a legacy is our spiritual need to have a sense of meaning, purpose, personal congruence, and contribution.”

Stephen Covey

When my mother passed, I had the opportunity to write my mother’s obituary and her eulogy, along with my brother and sister. While writing it, I tried to create a picture of what my mother’s legacy was and how she wanted to be remembered. I didn’t need to look far to find it – her legacy was very simple – she was to our world an infinite source of positiveness, embodied in her enduring smile.

Interestingly, I read notes left in sympathy cards, comments on Facebook, listened to people speak of her, and noted the officiating priest’s own eulogy during her Mass, and all, without exception, mentioned the light she brought to life through her smile. Quite frankly, the conformity to this one word – smile – in everything that was said or written about her, blew me away.

We are all unique in our creation – no two of us are exactly alike. We come into the world with this gift of uniqueness and when we depart, in death, that uniqueness will never return to this earth. So we all have a unique contribution, one that we have a duty to recognize and then deliver to the world. My mother may not have known it, but her smile – her enduring sense that anything had a positive angle to it – was her gift to the world.

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If we are to be judged at the end of our lives, will it be purely on the basis of what we did, or more importantly, will it be about who we were and how we were?

Take time now to dig deep and discover the legacy you were born to bear. And if you discover it, test it by asking others, by reading letters, comments in yearbooks, notes passed, stories told. I will tell you, the true test will be just what I saw at my mother’s passing. People, universally, will repeat the very thing you were meant to do.

My mother’s eulogy follows…

We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of our mother, Janet, and to reflect on the legacy she left to all of us. Our mother came into this world from humble beginnings. She was born in 1929 in the Bronx to a working-class family amidst the Great Depression. Life was hard and certainly if anyone had a choice on when to be born, 1929 would rate among the worst of times. Yet, as is said in the Bible, in fire gold is tested. And so she was raised during tough times but with the love and guidance of her parents, Elsa and Edward. She was taught the value of hard work, integrity, and perseverance from a strict but loving German mother and kind, compassionate Irish father and was raised in the Catholic faith.

Our mother grew up a very compliant and disciplined child. She excelled in school, studying, among many subjects, Latin. She was a member of the Arista (Honor Society) and managing editor of the school newspaper – where our father was editor-in-chief. She graduated valedictorian of her high school class in 1947. She initially went to school to be a nurse but found the emotional toll of tending to the sick and dying too great to bear. Instead, she became a secretary and worked for Newsweek magazine in Manhattan. She met our father in high school and after his return from the Korean War, they resumed dating and married in 1954.

Our parents started a family in 1959 and Mom carried the values she learned as a child into the home. She was a gifted mother and home-maker. Everything was done to perfection – from sewing to cleaning to cooking and baking. She derived great joy from these activities because she knew they brought joy to her family. Growing up in the home she made was a wonderful, almost magical experience – one of unconditional love, warmth, happiness, and support.

Outside the home, mom was generous, kind, and enterprising. She was extremely well organized, had great business savvy, and particularly loved investing in real estate and stocks, something she passed on to her children. Later in life with her children grown and on their own, she returned to the world of business and was office manager for SCM/Glidden.

Mom lived a life of service and compassion, always focusing on the good in people, including strangers, and seizing any opportunity to share a kind word or lend a hand. She was active as a volunteer in girl scouts, high school band, and in her later years at St. Mary’s rectory and Ken’s Kitchen. This service and compassion extended to animals as well. She spent countless hours rescuing and raising feral cats.

Mom’s most memorable traits were her ever-present, enduring smile and the sparkle in her eye. Hers was a world where anything – bad news, misfortune, loss, or even misery – could be turned into a positive. A favorite saying of hers was “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” And so it was as the horrible disease of dementia ravaged her mind, late in her life. Her speech had been compromised after suffering a stroke, though there were moments towards the end where snippets of clarity would still come out. One such comment was made on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The late afternoon sun was shining through her bedside window and out of the blue, she raised her head off her pillow, turned to the window and said, “isn’t life good.”

Our Mom’s mother, Oma, believed that no one truly dies if they are kept alive in the memories of those left behind. So let us end this eulogy with a question for all of you who have come today to honor her life. Will you remember our mother in the way she lived? Will you pay forward her legacy by loving life, living with gratitude, acting selflessly, and reflecting on all God has given us by saying, “isn’t life good”?

 

 

 

 

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Hope springs eternal at the beginning of each year. We look back on the past year and decide the new year will be better, and this is a good thing. However, research in the area of the New Year resolution shows that because we often form our resolutions during the holidays, a time when we are not hurried by work and other social pressures, our resolutions are often doomed from the start. This goal-setting is done in a vacuum, away from the daily grind, and may not be based entirely in reality. Our resolutions, however well-intentioned, may be a little big, even grandiose. When we get into the New Year, we are immediately faced with urgency issues we left behind when the holiday started, and our resolutions quickly fade away. Another factor that tends to doom these resolutions is that they are set for the future. It’s a lot easier to plan than it is “to do”.

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So what is Stephen Covey’s philosophy on New Years resolutions? In Habit 1, the habit of proactivity, Covey introduces us to the concept of the “Circle of Influence”, or the model that shows we can choose to focus on those things over which we have influence, rather than those things that are outside our control. Covey states that at the very heart of our Circle of Influence is our ability to make and keep promises to ourselves and to others and that by doing that carefully, with baby steps, we can slowly strengthen our “proactive muscle”. As we make and keep promises – as we set and achieve goals – we begin to build character and integrity. Eventually, our honor becomes greater than our moods, and we can expand our goals and achieve true personal growth.

The secret, according to Covey is to start very small and simple. Set a small goal and work on it weekly. Enlist the help of an accountability partner – someone you are close to who can help you, check up on your progress, and help you get back on the wagon when you fall off. Try to develop a specific action plan that will help you achieve your goal, and again, make these actions simple and well-defined.

Covey also emphasizes that these new resolutions or goals should come from extensive introspective study and ideally, from a well-formed mission statement. Covey demonstrates this through the example of the classic weight-loss resolution. If one has set a goal to lose weight so they look better and can fit into a smaller size dress before a social event, this goal is doomed for failure because the driving force is not coming from within but rather from social forces. But if one develops a goal to reduce weight as part of an integrated plan to live a healthier life, this inside looking out approach is likely to result in goal accomplishment.

Try a  new approach to New Year resolutions. Follow Dr. Covey’s recommendations and see if they don’t help you change for the better. Here’s to making promises and keeping them in 2014! Happy New Year!