Seeing a meaningful death teaches about life

The legacy of the late head of KPMG inspires us to find perfect moments in difficult times, writes Yoni Birnbaum

February 05, 2021 14:40

All rabbis love telling stories. Stories inject feeling into the messages that we feel passionate about. They bring inanimate ideas to life and transport them into the hearts and minds of our listeners.

But even rabbis have their own favourite stories. Those are the stories that replay over and over in our own heads, inspiring us as much as those we get a chance to share them with.

If there is one story that I have kept returning to over the past few months, it is the story of Eugene O’Kelly, the late CEO of KPMG. The story itself is a tragedy. Perhaps that is why it resonates so strongly during these difficult times. But I think it contains a priceless, uplifting and most importantly of all, realistic, message.

In May 2005, at the age of 53, O’Kelly was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer that left him with just a few months to live. In his posthumously published memoir, Chasing Daylight, O’Kelly describes how he sat at his dining room table following his diagnosis and drew five concentric circles.

Each circle represented a different set of relationships, with his business associates in the outermost ring and his family in the centre. O’Kelly decided to use the time he had remaining on Earth to, as he put it, “beautifully resolve” his relationships. Working from the outside circle towards the centre, he spent some time with every individual who meant something to him in life.

In the outermost circle, it was just a nice phone call or an email. As he progressed through the third and fourth circles, consisting of closer friends and colleagues, he arranged to meet up with them in person, to share a meal or a walk together. Finally, in the month before his passing on September 10 2005, having arrived at the centre circle, he devoted his remaining time to his wife and daughters.

O’Kelly’s story is exceptionally moving and reminds us of the need to be grateful for everything we have in life, especially the gift of meaningful relationships. But what really touched me about his story was his description of each interaction he had during those last few months as “perfect moments”. As his time dwindled away, O’Kelly began to see that his mission in life was not to achieve perfection but to create as many “perfect moments” as possible with the time he had left.

O’Kelly wrote that he had, “experienced more perfect moments…in two weeks than I had in the last five years, or that I probably would have in the next five years, had my life continued the way it was going before my diagnosis…I felt like I was living a week in a day, a month in a week, a year in a month”.

I’ve found myself reflecting on O’Kelly’s story again and again over recent weeks. These days, striving for perfection in life seems as impossible as setting out to reach the stars. Particularly when juggling the stresses of home-schooling, it seems like a small victory just making it through another day, let alone achieving something meaningful. Yet, I think that the message of O’Kelly’s story is that although perfection may be impossible, creating “perfect moments” with the lot that we have in life is not.

If we believe social media, there are apparently plenty of people out there who have achieved amazing things during lockdown. People who have learnt new skills, started global movements, energised others to save the world. But for the rest of us mortals, simply looking for a few perfect moments in exceptionally difficult times seems like a much more realistic goal. A smile from a child or grandchild that says, “I love you”. A chance for a walk in the fresh air as spring begins to show a few tiny first steps. A moment of shared joy with another. A connection to a community that makes us feel special.

In his powerful reflection on the fragility of life, O’Kelly encourages his readers to look for the hidden perfect moments in their own lives and discover ways to unlock them. That to me seems an eminently more meaningful and realistic aspiration for these troubling times. I also believe that it is a very Jewish one. Taking each day as it comes, realising that achieving perfection is usually impossible, but that discovering perfect moments is always possible. Now that would be a lockdown legacy to be proud of.

Yoni Birnbaum is the rabbi of Kehillas Toras Chaim shul, Hendon.

February 05, 2021 14:40

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