200 Words

How do you capture the essence of a life and legacy in 200 words or less? That is the onerous task – and awesome responsibility – faced every day by the newspaper obituary writer. In the wake of 9/11, the writers at the New York Times faced an even greater challenge. How to memorialize nearly 3000 dead, most of whom were known only to friends and family?

The genius solution they came up with was to focus each one on a singular story or idiosyncratic detail that best captured the essence of that person. Thus, the moving “Portraits of Grief” column that ran daily in the Times for three and a half months in the wake of that horrific event. It was an impressionistic mosaic that provided an intimate glimpse into the lives of others. For some, it was a too-painful reminder. For others, it was a means of connecting with the victims, a source of healing and consolation.

Jan Hoffman wrote more than 75 of these portraits. And what she found most revealing in talking with their loved ones was that no one talked about that person’s job. “It was always about love. It was about connection.” As she delved into people’s lives, she found the things that came to define them had very little to do with their work. Inevitably, it was about an undying devotion to a losing baseball team. A daughter’s inspiration. A beloved dog rescued from the pound. A love of loud leopard-skin pants and pink rhinestone-studded sunglasses. At the beginning of a New Year, I am loath to offer resolutions on top of all the other burdensome must-do’s that we already feel. Mostly what I do as a coach is simply encourage people to look deeply at their own internal value system to see if priorities line up properly. Are the things you are striving for in line with your own deepest held values? Are you being who you want to be, doing what you always wanted to do? Be honest. Because if your compass is off by even a few degrees, then every step you take gets you further away from where you really want to go. How powerfully do you feel your purpose on a day to day basis? What would others say are your deepest core values? Is what you’re saying what you’re doing? The issue with a majority of us is that we are operating, for the most part, on default settings – a false value system inculcated by advertising, poor parenting or whatever forces my have shaped us. Is money your ultimate goal? Is that where you derive meaning in life? Then it’s almost certain you will never feel you have enough. Slavishly worship youth and beauty? Chances are you will continue to feel old and ugly. Worship power? It’s unlikely you will ever feel fully secure and will need increasingly more power to keep the fear at bay. We know this already, we’re not dummies. Yes, but the trick is to keep the “true” value system, the one you want guiding you, front and center. In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey talks about the need to “begin with the end in mind.” I’m paraphrasing here, but he says that all things are created twice: first in the mind as a mental picture, and secondly in the physical realm in accordance with that mental map we create. If you don’t make a conscious effort to decide what you want out of life, then you run the risk of letting others determine that for you. Begin with the end in mind means beginning each New Year, and each new day, with a clear vision of your desired destination. And then holding yourself accountable to those dreams and that mission. Years ago, I shared a summer beach rental. One of my housemates at the time was Ron Breitweiser. He died tragically on 9/11. This is how his “portrait” read in the New York Times, under the title “A Ring From a Sweetheart.”

Ronald and Kristen Breitweiser were married five years ago in bathing suits and bare feet “on a little sand spit in the middle of nowhere,” Mrs. Breitweiser recalled. After years of marriage, the two continued to act like newlyweds. Each weekday, Mr. Breitweiser, 39, would return from his job as a senior vice president at Fiduciary Trust International at 2 World Trade Center, sit on the living room couch in Middletown Township, N.J., and snuggle with his wife for a few minutes. They called each other “Sweets.”

“I don’t think we ever used our real names,” recalled Mrs. Breitweiser, who was a lawyer before she gave up her job to raise their daughter, Caroline, who is now 2 and nicknamed Bug, after the way she used to crawl.

When Caroline woke up at night, Mr. Breitweiser would rub her back until she fell asleep. Sometimes he chased the family’s golden retriever, Sam, to make her giggle. On Sept. 8, the family went to a nearby beach at Sandy Hook. Mr. Breitweiser pointed to two gray rectangles in the distance. “Look, that’s where Daddy works,” he said. Some of Mr. Breitweiser’s remains, including his wedding ring, were recovered from ground zero in October. The authorities gave Mrs. Breitweiser her husband’s ring, which she wears on her right hand. Her own wedding ring stays where it was, on her left. (Profile published in THE NEW YORK TIMES on March 17, 2002.) Now ask yourself: “How will they capture my life in 200 words?” Then begin with that end in mind.