‘To Leave the World a Bit Better,’ and Other Codes to Live By

We asked readers what philosophies they live by. Their inspirations include Emerson, Niebuhr, deceased family members, a sign at a boat dock and a pet.,


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To the Editor:

My father died when he was 84, and when he was 80 years old I asked if he’d had any regrets in his life. “I wish I’d been more kind,” he said. For me those words were revelatory.

I am an impatient person (as was my dad), and as I try to improve myself as I move forward in life, the idea and practice of kindness have become my personal motivating force. Everything improves with kindness, and I’ve come to learn that it goes a long way in helping me to overcome my natural inclinations to rush, to brush off, to dismiss out of some misguided notion of my own importance.

This has been a tough year for all of us, and when I’m in a fix, or confused about how to proceed in some thorny situation, or even when given an opportunity to interact with my fellow humans, my father’s words come to me. I hope I will not have a similar regret if I’m ever asked that question at the end of my own life.

Jeanne McSorley
Standard, Calif.

To the Editor:

Many people live by the Golden Rule (treat others as you wish to be treated), but I’ve come to follow the Platinum Rule, which is to treat others as they wish to be treated. Treating others as they wish to be treated requires a willingness to learn about others’ lives.

For example, as an extrovert, I enjoyed talking with my professors, going to office hours and even loved being called on in class. If I treated all of my students the way I wanted to be treated, I would annoy (at best) or alienate some of my introverted, shy or anxious students. Instead of making assumptions to treat them as I’d like to be treated, I get to know students as individuals and treat them as they’d like to be treated, creating a richer learning environment.

Similarly, the Platinum Rule can be useful for white people in this era of racial justice, because it asks us to stop centering our own experiences as the norm. Instead, it asks us to consider how others may experience the world in ways that are unfamiliar to us and be inclusive of experiences that are different from ours.

Kristy McCray
Columbus, Ohio

To the Editor:

“1-2-1-2” used to simply be a mantra to get me up hills while I was running. A take on “put one foot in front of the other,” it kept my mind moving to the next step in a slow, methodical way. Now, I repeat it in the middle of Sunday when the pace of the week ahead seems daunting, when my toddler has yet again shouted “no, Mommy!” when I have asked for shoes to be put on, and to friends who have a month left of a difficult project.

In Covid times, it has gotten my little family through, one day at a time, in small increments. “1-2-1-2” has become a rhythmic battle song of forward movement, reminding my type-A self that I truly must live (and take a deep breath) in the current moment.

Liz McCaffery
Syracuse, N.Y.

To the Editor:

My philosophy is a very simple one I learned during my Catholic school days and in the Army. Although I don’t always live up to the standard, it has generally served me well: “Always behave as if someone were watching.”

Dave Dillon
Jefferson City, Mo.

To the Editor:

I can state my goal in life no better than the words attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson that I have framed from a lovely card I received from a friend after graduating from nursing school many years ago: “To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

What more meaningful gift to give the world than to leave it a better place. I have never since defined success any other way, and it has carried me through some rough times (financially and emotionally).

Diane Detlefsen
Thurmont, Md.


Credit…William Dock

To the Editor:

Just inside a harbor on Fidalgo Island, gateway to Washington’s San Juan Islands, I recall seeing a small rectangular sign on the end of a dock declaring “Your Wake Defines You” in red, black and white lettering, intended for boats that create havoc if they pass too quickly. This has also become my mantra.

No matter what I am doing, I always pay attention to the impact my choices have on others — from close relationships to what goes in my trash. If my impact is too destructive, I change course and find another way to achieve my goal — or, when necessary, forgo that goal altogether.

That’s not always easy, for shortcuts are tempting and some opportunities are tough to pass up. And, granted, there are at times impacts that you cannot see. However, if we constantly place value and attention on increasing the benefits that others get from our existence, or on reducing our negative impacts, the world would be a more habitable — and more humane — place.

William Dock

To the Editor:

My guiding philosophy, a simple code I live by, is: “What if everyone did that?” Every little action (or inaction) can be judged by that credo. From leaving (or picking up) litter, to one’s behavior driving a car, to kindness or rudeness — each thing alone may be insignificant, but … what if everyone did the same?

Bambi Vincent

To the Editor:

A few weeks ago, I picked up (for the third time) Sandra Cisneros’s “The House on Mango Street” and read until I finished the vignette “Four Skinny Trees.” It is about four thin, “raggedy” trees outside the protagonist’s house that inspire her with their angry persistence as they spread “ferocious” roots and branches to the sky.

This vignette helped me understand that anger has guided my life and that I want to keep it that way. I do not mean the tantrums that sent me to discuss my anger issues in the second grade, but harnessing rage I feel as a 15-year-old and using it as a tool to create change in my life. This vignette helped me realize that my anger can be a source of motivation and strength.

I have improved my grades, organization, work ethic, appearance and the amount of joy I have as a result of channeling some of my frustrations into positive changes. Most recently, I joined the Pfizer/BioNTech adolescent vaccine trial to get revenge on Covid. At the core of my achievements is the spark of anger.

Stephanie Harrison
Los Angeles

To the Editor:

After the Great Recession wiped my community journalism career away, I came up with the following mantra to help me stay unbowed and positive in the face of external and internal oppression and negativity while I reinvented myself: “Create more. Consume less.”

I often forget to make time for creativity (writing, drawing, music and cooking) because of the demands of family, work and — more concerning and intense — self-doubt. My mantra never fails to boost my morale and self-confidence. It prepares my soul for inspiration, friendship and love while driving me to work hard with a sense of joy.

Erik Hansen

To the Editor:

My husband, Robert Lutz, had a code that he lived by; he taught it to our children, and I adopted it because it’s perfect:

Be reasonable.

Be kind.

Be funny.

He died last fall at 65. I miss him every day.

Linda Gaines
Louisville, Ky.

To the Editor:

Over my 76 years of sometimes disappointing myself, I have learned that I am happiest when I live up to the standards of the people I most admire and when I remember that, in the end, the most important person judging me is the one with whom I live most intimately … me.

Frank Denton
Jacksonville, Fla.


Credit…Michael D. Zentman

To the Editor:

“Be the person your dog thinks you are.”

Michael D. Zentman
New York

Additional responses from the more than 700 we received will be published next weekend.

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