You ever seen that movie Big Fish? It’s about an estranged son coming back to his hometown to help his father as he is dying of cancer. His father, an inveterate teller of tall tales, has long frustrated the son with his “bullshit,” but we get to see just how important those stories are to the son’s image of the father, and how those stories are important to the father’s own sense of self. And then, in the movie’s last shot, in the parking lot at the funeral, we pan up to see all the father’s friends standing around, talking to each other, telling stories about their friend they have lost. The stories are big, energetic, funny.
When I first saw that movie with my wife, I turned to her after that scene and told her, “that – that’s how I want my funeral to be. People telling stories about my life, laughing and smiling.”
And so that brings us to Muhammad Ali. And Prince. And Bowie. And all the famous people (and non-famous people) we’ve lost this past year. Ali, though, looms largest for me. Over the past day or two I’ve heard dozens of Ali stories, all of them wonderful and amazing. About how he talked a man off a ledge in 1980. Or how he was asked for a signature while deep in the grip of Parkinson’s Disease, and though it took him 15 minutes, he signed the damned paper anyway, refusing to give up. Or this beautiful obituary in the New Yorker, in which we learn how baby Ali knocked his own mother’s two front teeth out, or how he became a boxer to avenge the theft of a bicycle. I’ve got my own, too. Heard it on the radio some years back. A local radio station was interviewing George Foreman, and his fight with Ali came up. It went something like this:
Radio Host: That was the rope-a-dope, right?
Foreman: (laughing) And I was the dope!
Radio Host: What did you think about that? Do you think about that fight?
Foreman: Man, you gotta understand that I hit people hard, right? I used to hit guys so hard I’d feel bad afterwards. Was in a match once, knocked a guy down, and I remember saying to myself “aww…please get up.” Swung at one guy and missed, but he felt the wind, see? He decided to fall down right there and I was there sayin’ “get up, man – this is embarrassing,” and he’s like “no way, man.”
So, when I’m fighting Ali, I’m hitting him as hard as I can, right? And I’m hitting him and I’m hitting him and he’s just smiling at me. I hit him with everything I had for like ten rounds, and then he gets me in a grapple and while he’s hugging me he whispers in my ear, (imitates a low, mean sneer) “that all you got, George?”
Radio Host: (laughing) Really?!
Foreman: Man, I still have nightmares about that fight.
But, when they asked him if he felt any animosity for the Greatest, all Foreman would say is that he was a great, great man and that he loved him. The whole time, Big George was laughing, the hosts were laughing, and we all had a smile on our faces.
This – the stories we leave behind us – are our most enduring, our most important legacy. If we seek immortality, this is how we can achieve it – be being a person who makes such a mark on others’ lives that they cannot help but tell the world about it. Even after we are gone, the stories travel onwards, illuminating and amusing and encouraging our descendants for years to come. So, while there is a lot to be said about how one ought to live their life, I think this is always best to keep in mind: when you are gone, what stories will others tell about you? Is that how you wish to be remembered? If not, start living your life in a way that makes you proud and that touches others in positive ways, because while all your wealth and all your success and all your victories will vanish with time, it is the stories you leave behind that will persist.