I was a not-nice person in high school. My friends may have thought I was, but I really wasn't. As a late bloomer, and a geeky late bloomer at that, I had tremendous resentment for those who seemed to have it all together. And anyone who thought I had it all together believed my lies. I was a terrible student, fairly lazy, and I laughed at the misfortune of others.
As such, I enjoyed surrounding myself with people of like minds. My friends and I have screwed each other over so many times that I truly don't know how our friendships survived. We've gone after girlfriends, sandbagged opportunities, lied about each other. We've TP'd houses, defiled the beds of other parents, and have even recorded phone conversations to delight at another's misery. One guy even broke his neck in a car accident. We affectionately referred to our haloed friend as "The Human Erector Set."
Yeah, we were those guys, and we thought nothing of it.
But somewhere along the way, someone got sick. It was a cold dose of reality when our friend Todd, a big burly football player who liked to fight, was diagnosed with leukemia. This was over twenty years ago, a time light-years away from what medicine is capable of today. It was the first dose of mortality for all of us watching our 5'11" hulk of a friend turn into a 5'8" shell of his former self. It was the first time that many of us actually "hurt" for another human being.
They were the growing seeds of compassion.
For the first time in my life, I cared more about someone else than myself, and while it felt a bit odd at first, it also felt right. I started looking outside myself more and more, becoming aware of compassion in the world around me, and never would it become more evident than an incident that happened at the VP Fair, a huge gathering of humanity that used to take place under the Gateway Arch every year.
My friends and I worked in communications at the fair. Every volunteer on the grounds communicated via portable radio, and it was up to us to make sure they worked, charged batteries, etc. One day I was in the tent by myself when this man ran up to me. He was mid-40s with a voice like Mr. Smee from Peter Pan, and he was frantic.
"Can you help me? Oh, I hope you can help me... my daughter has lost her sunglasses."
I looked at his daughter. She was 12, and had some physical disabilities.
"What did her glasses look like?" I asked, thinking they might have been prescription.
"They were orange."
And like a bolt of lightning, it hit me: the only thing this man cared about on earth was to make sure he took care of his daughter in any way possible, even seeking out a complete stranger to ask to help him find a $3 pair of sunglasses that had probably been long since trampled. All I could think to say was, "Sir, we may have to wait until the grounds clear out until we find them, but if you leave me your address, the second I find them, I'll mail them directly to you."
With that, his demeanor changed to unbridled relief, and even his daughter cracked a smile.
"Oh thank you, thank you, thank you! I can never thank you enough!"
That day, that man gave me perspective like I'd never had before. If anyone was thankful, it was I. It allowed me to see what compassion looks like, and to recognize it... especially when it was my turn to be sick.
I often talk about the people, support, prayers and good thoughts that enveloped me the day I found out I had a tumor in my abdomen. People I hadn't heard from in years sent me messages of encouragement. One said that he and his young son say a prayer for me every night. It was humbling, to say the least.
And it showed me that no one battles cancer on his own, and it does take the love and hope and prayers and good deeds and thoughts of others to help carry you when you are not strong enough to stand. It's why I started writing and reaching out to others who have cancer, to let them know that in some small way, I'm here, even if it's just to help them tell their stories.
But even my compassion has had its limits tested lately. It seems that everywhere I look, all I see is hate. And at this point, it's take your pick: obnoxious mobs of kids trying to hurt innocent people with dangerous "games" like Point 'em out, Knock 'em out, or mistrust between the police and citizens, ISIS beheading journalists for sport, the war at our southern border which is fueled by the war in Washington, Hamas versus Israel, Saudi Arabia versus women, good versus evil. Sad to admit, but evil is kicking good's ass sideways.
And part of the reason is because good is sometimes turning into evil. From Nigeria, you have probably heard of the group, Boko Haram. They are a radical Islamic group that seeks to destroy democracy by recruiting, or executing, those who are not followers of their ideology. To answer them, the Nigerian military joined forces with local militias to fight Boko Haram. At first, they were treated as heroes... defending the citizens of Nigeria.
But the lamb has become the lion. In many cases, the military-militia tandem is systematically slaughtering anyone who they may even think has any ties to Boko Haram. Often, they are brutally murdering completely innocent people, all in the name of righteousness. I watched an entire documentary on it last night, and I couldn't turn away no matter how disgusted I became.
Hate is winning.
So as I sat here at my computer this morning, wondering what to write about for my next blog, I could think of absolutely nothing uplifting. I always try to write about something positive, but with so much negativity in the world, I was truly stumped.
And then, out of nowhere, Rachel's Challenge entered my lexicon. My friend Christine asked if I'd be interested in looking at RC for our school. Having no idea what it even was, I took a peek at the video describing what it all meant.
In 1999, Rachel Scott was the first student murdered in the Columbine massacre. Two weeks after her death, her family found an essay she had written called My Ethics: My Codes of Life. It was under her bed and had never been turned in. In it, Rachel laid out five basic principles.
1. Look for the best in others.
2. Dream big.
3. Choose positive influences.
4. Speak with kindness.
5. Start your own chain reaction of kindness and compassion.
Those five things seem like they should be second nature thoughts for all of us, but how many of us actually follow them, or rather, have followed them recently?
Even in my own back yard, in Ferguson, MO, where a teenager was shot by the police, there is an utter lack of compassion on all sides. Many on the side of the police have the thought in the back of their minds, "It was tragic, BUT, the punk shouldn't have been up to no good." Many on the side of Michael Brown think, "The only justice is for the pig to fry in prison for life."
I understand both sides, which is part of the problem: there are nothing but sides. This was a tragic death, but in my heart, it does not have to be in vain. This has to be about not just coming together, but to actually facilitate an understanding of why... to speak rationally and kindly, to listen with an open heart and mind, to search for voices that have risen above the fray, to pledge to never let this happen again. It is a complex dynamic with so much mistrust to overcome on every side, but it is not unsolvable.
I may be naive, but at some point I would love to see the officer and the mom talk with each other, have her get off her chest what she has to say, and have him tell her, "I'm so sorry your son died. Here is why I made the decision I made."
Dare to dream, but like Rachel's second point says, "Dream Big."
And for all future endeavors, we have to find a starting point, and that point is usually the simple act of talking the right way: we have to stop talking at each other, and start talking with each other.
Is it possible? Who knows, but the impossible is just something that has yet to be accomplished. Many thought it impossible for Ireland to make peace, or for the Berlin Wall to come down, or for the acceptance of two men or two women to get married, or for a black man to be elected president not once, but twice.
In the end, many things eventually fade away, both good and bad. When the good fades away, the vacuum is consumed by hate. When the bad fades away, it is consumed by love. I have not given up on love. I've seen too many examples of it to dismiss it as weak. It's like a line from one of my favorite movies of all time:
When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge -- they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaky feeling you'll find that love, actually, is all around.