or Day to Think About When You're Dead
Tomorrow is Election Day, and I find it noteworthy that it is also Plan Your Epitaph Day. Writing your epitaph in advance can be an introspective exercise, having to capsulize your life into just a few words. The headstone of John Keats reads, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” but epitaphs are chiseled in stone. So, I wonder if the candidates in this year’s hyped up election would behave differently were their permanent epitaphs to be written based on the nature of their campaigns.
Politics has always been a dirty business, and all we have to do is read ancient records to see how men and women have connived and plotted for top positions in government. This season’s campaigns may be no worse than others, but the bar has not been set high, and truth telling and integrity have quite often been set aside in the interest of winning. To help us sort truth from falsehood, PolitiFact.com, a website operated by the St. Petersburg Times, fact-checks statements made by public figures, particularly those in politics. They grade statements with ranks from True to Half-True to Pants on Fire, a label given to egregious liars who don’t just stretch the truth a little. They out and out lie.
In recent weeks, Zack Space was awarded Pants on Fire for a statement he made related to saving teacher jobs, and Bob Gibbs was given the same label for misrepresenting the facts of cap and trade legislation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi earned Pants on Fire for misquoting Rep. John Boehner, and Rep. Michele Bachman earned the same label for misrepresenting Pelosi’s travel expenses. John Kasich has spoken falsely about Ted Strickland, and Strickland has spoken falsely about Kasich.
The same level of dishonesty is rampant all over the country, especially in states with close contests being fought over critical seats. It seems the greater the risk, the more lying is an acceptable option, even blatant and repeated lying. Pants on fire indeed.
It’s worth considering, I think, how a final statement might sum up your life, and it’s worth posing the question—what statement would I want as my life’s summation, to be carved in stone and remembered for the ages? Have I lived a life that would warrant a complimentary headstone? Or would I have to claim to be something I am not and risk the chance people will read my epitaph in years to come and see me as a liar even in my death?
We have plenty of honorable, if not blameless, examples of epitaphs from historical leaders. Susan B. Anthony’s epitaph simply reads, “Liberty, Humanity, Justice, Equality,” because she was firm in her beliefs and fearless in expressing them. The life of Henry Ward Beecher, similar in his attempts to create a more just society, is summed up with “He thinketh no evil.” Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered for the best of his actions, and near the end of his life he wrote his own epitaph, which reads, “…author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” Simple as that, he chose the three deeds for which he was most proud.
If I were to write my own epitaph, I would probably choose words that I hope would reflect on my relationships, and not on my deeds, but then I haven’t penned a monumental document or founded a university. And if I were to vote for a candidate solely based on his or her epitaph, I would hope for a leader who might be worthy of the one written for George Washington Carver, a humble man known for great advances in science. His reads, “He could have added fortune to fame, but caring for neither, he found happiness and honor in being helpful to the world.”
I believe if everyone so willing to chuck their integrity for the sake of votes on Election Day were to write their epitaphs for use later, they might realize that choosing to be helpful is far more honorable than winning an election at all costs. And they might decide that Pants on Fire is not a suitable epitaph for an elected leader.