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Jewish World Review April 25, 2002 / 16 Iyar 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Life's stories carry messages about values | SPRINGFIELD, Vt. It's the stories. That's how we pass on values from one generation to the next, values that hold families together, build strong community foundations, make civilization itself possible.

That's what we've been doing here on this sad, celebratory day - telling stories about Eric, my wife's father. He died quietly in the small hours of a recent morning in a hospital bed in his home while my wife stayed on a nearby couch in the room with him.

Eric Bibens has left behind a large family and many friends who will never forget what a good and decent man he was. One reason they won't forget is that today these people have been telling and hearing the Eric stories. And it's the stories that carry the messages about values, that boil the truth of a person to a size and shape that can be consumed, digested, metabolized and reproduced as acts of kindness and integrity.

At Eric's funeral, for instance, his family and friends told lots of stories about his noble heart, his uncompromising standards, his low tolerance for incompetence and dishonesty.

Through warm tears, his granddaughter Julie told about the day he listened to her pour out her distraught heart. In the end, she said, she knew she had in him a friend who not only understood her pain but actually shared it as if it were his own. It helped her know the difference between sympathy and compassion.

And Eric's son Roy told the story of being in a bad car wreck.

When he awoke dazed in a hospital room, Roy felt someone holding his hand and slowly realized it was his father. From then on, Roy knew that his dad would be there whenever he needed him.

These stories begin, in a slow and cumulative kind of way, to lay down plumb lines that others may use to measure the quality of their lives. The stories form a central truth, almost a creative myth, an organizing narrative that gives shape and meaning to the life we celebrate today even as we also grieve our loss.

This narrative, these truths, will help Eric's family - especially his grandchildren and great-grandchildren - know when they begin to deviate from the creative and useful rules by which Eric guided his own life.

If ever these relatives are tempted to take ethical shortcuts, they will remember the stories about how Eric managed his home-building and hardware businesses (to say nothing of his family) with great integrity.

If they drift into a lack of attention to family, they will be able to replay the stories about how Eric always made his stepchildren and the spouses of his children feel as if they were a vital part of the family. And this wasn't just his accommodation to reality. He really meant it. I felt it myself in countless ways.

So telling these stories is why we hold funerals. Yes, they honor the dead. But much more to the point, they teach the living. They give survivors a reminder about the rules by which it is best to live, about the narratives that help to define the essence of lives.

This goes on, of course, not simply at memorial services but also at receptions and other family gatherings at which countless stories begin this way: "Do you remember the time ... ?"

As important as these poignant and often funny stories are, they gain even more value and usefulness when they are set in contexts that are larger than personal. Eric, for instance, was a civic leader here in southern Vermont and a man of profound religious faith.

Springfield and North Springfield, Vt., are different and remarkably better today because Eric lived and worked here. And the religious communities to which Eric belonged (both here and in Florida, where he and his wife lived part of each year) made significant differences in people's lives because he found his own story in the larger narrative of the faith.

So funeral services like today's pass on not just individual values but also larger principles that make civilized life possible. As the Eric stories got told today, it occurred to me how much better the world would be if everyone lived by the values they contained. They describe a way of living not focused on self-aggrandizement or even self-fulfillment. Rather the goal of these values is to help people live for the common good. And that's a lesson we desperately need to hear now.

JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' latest book is "A Gift of Meaning." To order it, please click on title. To comment on his column, please click here.

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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2002. All rights reserved