Eulogy or Elegy?


First the words;

Eulogy: a speech or piece of writing that praises someone or something highly, especially a tribute to someone who has just died.

Elegy: An elegy is a sad poem, usually written to praise and express sorrow for someone who is dead. 

But eulogies, Wikipedia assures me, can also be delivered at retirement functions and other such events when a person is leaving you but not for the next world. I assume that it is not a crime to deliver a eulogy, so to speak, by simply expressing appreciation and thanks to someone who has been good to you in different ways, without any formal function or speechmaking.

Now, why this article.

Recently in one week, I received news of the deaths of three people, all very dear to me. One was my aunt, Anees Fatima, the second was my classmate all through school (Hyderabad Public School) from 1965-1972, Chandramohan Agarwal and the third was Mohammed (we called him MP), my dear friend and companion on various jaunts, whose father and uncle were mentors to both of us.

Quite spontaneously, I wrote my thoughts about them, our shared memories about the times we lived in saying how much I appreciated their being in my life. Many people read what I wrote and appreciated it. But it occurred to me (yes, I am stupid and you must have seen this coming long ago) that the only one who didn’t and couldn’t see, read or hear what I had written, was the one about whom I had written. So, was my writing worth it at all? Yes, their relatives appreciated the words in their hour of bereavement, but I didn’t write my thoughts for that. I wrote them to express my appreciation and thanks to the person who died. However, because of the timing, the eulogy became an elegy (a poem in praise of the dead).

I recall something I found very amusing at the time, my friend Siasp Kothawala telling me a funny story about his friend Mariba Shetty. Siasp and I shared a love for horses and wildlife. Mariba Shetty was the Inspector of Police in charge of the Mounted Police battalion in Mysore. We used to visit him there and ride the horses of the Mounted Police, beautifully turned out and trained. We always appreciated the immaculate condition of the stables, mounts, tack, saddlery, uniforms and manners of all the people. All the result of one man focused on quality, Mariba Shetty.

I used to visit Siasp in his forest resort/home, Bamboo Banks in Masanagudi on the edge of the Mudumalai National Park and would ride his horses in the buffer area. One day I was having tea with him when Siasp said to me, ‘I read somewhere in the papers that there was a riot in Mysore and the Mounted Police were called out to control it but in the melee, there was all kinds of violence and Mariba Shetty was killed. I was very sad to hear this and promptly wrote a long letter to his wife, telling her what I thought of her husband, listing all his qualities that I appreciated all through my association with him. Two weeks later, I get a letter from Mariba Shetty which said, ‘Dear Mr. Kothawala, you will be happy to know that the news about my demise was wrong and I am alive and well. I am writing however to say that I am most grateful to you for your kind letter to my wife. I had no idea that you thought so highly of me.’

I am writing this as a reflection and a reminder to myself and to you. Express appreciation to the one who was good to you and added value to your life before they die. Don’t wait for someone to die before you tell them that you love them or are grateful to them.

For after they are dead, everyone else will read and hear what you said, except the only one whose reading and hearing it would have mattered.

I consider myself to be extremely fortunate that I have had many friends through my long life who came into my life and made it richer, more colorful, more valuable. Through their participation in my life I became happier, wiser, more patient, more courageous and inspired. Some came and showed me their real faces. Others came in disguise of negativity, hostility, cunning, hypocrisy and lies. But all added value. From some I learnt what to do. From others, what not to do. From some I learnt how to act and, in some cases, corrected myself. From others, I learnt how not to act, and they confirmed for me, that how I had behaved, had been the right way. Some I thanked and they knew how much I loved and appreciated them. Others passed away, I hope, knowing how thankful I was to them, even though I never said it to them directly.

I have always wondered about why it is so difficult for some or many of us to express appreciation and thanks to someone who added value to us for no reason at all. At the same time, we don’t find it tough to express dissatisfaction, irritation, even anger, if we feel wronged, slighted and hurt in any way, even though in many cases we may know that the other person didn’t mean to do or say what they did. We tell them what we think of them (not how they made us feel), sometimes in terms that we even regret later, after the damage has been done. Why does this happen?

I believe it is the result of our environment, growing up. Most of us receive very little praise right through childhood and youth. And we see very little praise and appreciation being given to others. I am not talking about formal functions to give awards. Those always have a sense of inevitability to them, like the last sentence in every annual report of every corporation allegedly ascribed to the Chairman, “None of this would have been possible without the help and support of our people.” The Chairman may believe that the people believe him. But the people themselves scratch their heads trying to recall when in the fog of ancient history, the Chairman, even looked at them or acknowledged their greeting, let alone praise them for what they had done at that time. I don’t mean pin a medal on their chest. But just a word of genuine thanks to an individual, who they recognize. If you are a Chairman, ask yourself, “When did I do this?”

You can also ask yourself this question, “When did I thank a bus driver, cook, teacher, helper in my home, waiter, porter, cabin crew on a flight, friend, spouse (especially spouse), child, parent – you can add your own – for what they  do for me every time I encounter them?’ And then ask, “Why not?” To complete the story, also ask yourself, ‘When did I express irritation, dissatisfaction, anger about something they did, or I thought they did?’ Or did I say to myself after they had said or done whatever it was that irritated me, ‘I think it’s their bad day today. Let me not add to it for them.’ In my view, it is this overly critical atmosphere that we have created for ourselves and those who live with us, that prevents us from being happy and allowing others to be happy. Unless of course we decide to change this.

So, what must we do?

That is simple: catch people doing right and ‘pin’ medals on them for that. This contrasts with catching people doing wrong which we are conditioned for. Positive reinforcement instead of punishment or negative reinforcement. Just ask yourself which you enjoy more? Living in a threat filled atmosphere where you fear being caught and ‘punished’ even for genuine mistakes? Or the opposite where you know that you will be appreciated and thanked for doing something nice, even if that happened accidentally without your active intention. I recall something that a manager in SKF told me in Pune, in 2015 at the end of a 3-day leadership course that I taught there. I had never met him before and haven’t met him since. But in the course feedback session, he said to me, “I love the look of peace and tranquility on your face and your beautiful smile.” He clearly didn’t have to say that. But the fact that he did, makes me feel warm and happy to this day and the memory will live on, as long as I do. The important thing in this story is not about me. It is about that man, who has this attitude of expressing appreciation and gratitude for what he receives. I suspect that he is someone who has many friends and lives in an atmosphere of friendship and appreciation, which he projects around him.

I am a great believer in appreciating what people do for me and try to do it always. I make a note of the names of people who give me great service and write to their bosses and companies to let them know and express my appreciation. I do that after first thanking them and telling them that I am going to tell their superiors about them. I do this not only because I am genuinely grateful to someone for what they do, but also because I want to create an atmosphere of appreciation and gratitude which spreads the good feeling. People who have been appreciated, tend to behave in those positive ways with others. For those who still have doubts, please differentiate between genuine appreciation and flattery. Genuine appreciation is truthful. Flattery is lies. I am talking about expressing genuine appreciation, not flattery. If you think this is a good thing to do, start with your own home. Thank your spouse, parents, children, and servants. Then thank your colleagues at work. Thank strangers who serve you, help you, are simply there with you. Smile and greet people. What is the worst that can happen? They won’t smile back and won’t return your greeting. So what? So, nothing. It is good for our egos. Our egos are the result of our self-generated images about ourselves; many of which may be and are false. But we believe in them because we like them. To get a shock from time to time, keeps our feet on the ground. I am not suggesting that you believe negative things about yourself as in the rhyme: ‘Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I eat worms all day.’ You don’t and even if you do, so what? So do songbirds, but what you notice about them is their beautiful song, not that they eat worms.

I want to end with a story. I was teaching a leadership course in Chennai to a group of IT engineers. As it happened, they were all Tamil Brahmins (Aka Tambrams). I lived in Tamilnadu for ten years and speak Tamil fluently and am very familiar with Tamilian culture. In Tamilian homes, especially in Tambram homes, there is an unfailing, sacrosanct morning ritual which goes like this. The lady of the house wakes up first, before any of the men. She bathes, does her puja (prayer), then enters her kitchen and makes filter coffee. You have to drink freshly brewed filter coffee (called Kapi) to understand the meaning of life. By then, the men have woken up. The lady (mother, wife, sister) serves them coffee in steel tumblers cradled in a steel bowl. They receive it in silence, drink it in silence and read The Hindu, newspaper. This is the ritual that differentiates a Tamilian household from that of someone who merely lives in Tamilnadu.

The course that I was teaching was on Enhancing Personal Effectiveness and was a two-day course. At the end of the first day, I spoke about the importance being thankful and of expressing your gratitude. I told the people, ‘People are not mind-readers. Even if they were, they would still be very happy to know that you appreciated whatever they did for you. So, thank them.’

I then asked them, ‘How many of you begin your day with your morning cup of filter coffee and The Hindu newspaper?’ Every single person raised his hand and smiled. They knew that I understood their culture.

I asked, ‘What if you don’t get your coffee one day? Will it make a difference?’

They looked horrified and rolled their eyes.

Then I asked them, ‘How many of you thank your mother or wife or sister who gives you your morning coffee?’

Sheepish looks, looking down, looking anywhere but at me. I then noticed their manager who was also attending the course and sitting in the front row, smiling. I said to him, ‘I am happy to see you smiling, but can you tell us why?’

He said, ‘I never thanked my wife for my coffee, and I am smiling because if I do, she will die of surprise.’

I said to him, ‘Thank her anyway. Let her die happy.’ Everyone laughed and we ended the session and went home.

The next morning, the second day of the program, I went in early, as is my way and was going over my material for the day. One young man came in and greeted me and said, ‘Sir, my mother asked me to thank you.’ I was surprised. ‘Thank me? For what? I have never met your mother. What did she ask you to thank me for?’

He said, ‘Last evening, when I returned home, I thanked my mother for the morning coffee which she has been making for us as long as I have lived. But her response was strange. She said to me, ‘Who told you to thank me?’ I tried to wing it and said, ‘Mom, I just thought about it and felt that I must thank you.’ She said, ‘I know you better than you know yourself, I am your mother, remember? You didn’t think of this. Someone told you to do it. Who was it?’ So, I told her your name and told her what you told us last night about expressing gratitude. She said to me, ‘When you go to the class tomorrow, please thank your teacher and tell him that I appreciate what he is teaching you.’

So, people, that is how it is. Let us thank people. Let us appreciate the good they do for us. Let us express our gratitude. And let us do it always, especially to those who help and serve us, every day.

Don’t wait for a eulogy to become an elegy.

Mirza Yawar Baig is based in Hyderabad, India and is the founder and President of Yawar Baig & Associates; an international leadership consulting organization. He can be reached at [email protected]




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