First a confession… I've been avoiding this blog for the past few weeks. I've been going through so many things and thinking so many things that it was swirling around in my head like a tornado and I couldn't make enough sense of it to know what to say let alone write it down. So, avoidance theory. It works every time.
You know, it’s easy to write a story. I can think up a character and put him in all kinds of situations. Just like my last entry, I can write a story where the character gets picked on and then finds the inner strength to overcome it. The thing is, though, no matter what I write, that character doesn't exist and every situation that he gets into, every feeling that he has is totally make believe. There is no physical attachment between me and the character. It's not real life.
On the other hand, real life hit me in the gut this morning after I got to work. I started my normal routine of checking e-mails and following up on items that I had been working on yesterday when an older woman that I work with brought a sympathy card to me. One of the guy's mothers had passed away and, like normally happens, a card is passed around for everyone to sign. Mary was standing there waiting for me to sign the card when she whispered something that I couldn't quite understand. I work in a loud factory and it is often hard to hear, so I finished signing the card and turned to face her so I could pay close attention to what she was saying, "What did you say?"
She said, "My brother was killed on Saturday."
I blinked in disbelief, not expecting this kind of news at all, especially from the person who was passing around a sympathy card for someone else. I can honestly say that my heart started hurting when she told me that. In a clumsy, stuttering voice I told her that I was sorry and she started telling me what happened. Her eyes watered up and she told me how a 17 year old boy swerved off the road and then jerked back on, sending his car across the road head on into her brother's car. Her brother was killed instantly and the young boy died on the way to the hospital.
What do you say at a time like that? "I'm sorry" just doesn't seem like enough, but that's all that I found myself saying. She managed to fake a little smile and said, "Thank you." Then she was walking away, off to get the sympathy card signed by someone else.
I have more respect for that woman than she will ever know. Here she was, grieving over the loss of her brother, and she was doing every thing she could to comfort someone else in their time of grief. It humbled me and I have been thinking about it ever since. Life can be so unpredictable… and so painful.
One day, when I was a freshman in high school, I saw a kid from my class was walking home from school.
His name was Kyle.
It looked like he was carrying all of his books. I thought to myself, "Why would anyone bring home all his books on a Friday? He must really be a nerd."
I had quite a weekend planned (parties and a football game with my friends tomorrow afternoon), so I shrugged my shoulders and went on. As I was walking, I saw a bunch of kids running toward him. They ran at him, knocking all his books out of his arms and tripping him so he landed in the dirt. His glasses went flying, and I saw them land in the grass about ten feet from him.
He looked up and I saw this terrible sadness in his eyes
My heart went out to him. So, I jogged over to him as he crawled around looking for his glasses, and I saw a tear in his eye. As I handed him his glasses, I said, "Those guys are jerks. They really should get lives."
"He looked at me and said, "Hey thanks!" There was a big smile on his face. It was one of those smiles that showed real gratitude.
I helped him pick up his books, and asked him where he lived. As it turned out, he lived near me, so I asked him why I had never seen him before. He said he had gone to private school before now. I would have never hung out with a private school kid before.
We talked all the way home, and I carried some of his books. He turned out to be a pretty cool kid. I asked him if he wanted to play a little football with my friends. He said yes.
We hung out all weekend and the more I got to know Kyle, the more I liked him, and my friends thought the same of him. Monday morning came, and there was Kyle with the huge stack of books again. I stopped him and said, "Boy, you are gonna really build some serious muscles with this pile of books everyday!" He just laughed and handed me half the books.
Over the next four years, Kyle and I became best friends. When we were seniors we began to think about college. Kyle decided on Georgetown and I was going to Duke. I knew that we would always be friends, that the miles would never be a problem. He was going to be a doctor and I was going for business on a football scholarship.
Kyle was valedictorian of our class. I teased him all the time about being a nerd. He had to prepare a speech for graduation. I was so glad it wasn't me having to get up there and speak
Graduation day, I saw Kyle. He looked great. He was one of those guys that really found himself during high school. He filled out and actually looked good in glasses. He had more dates than I had and all the girls loved him. Boy, sometimes I was jealous! Today was one of those days.
I could see that he was nervous about his speech. So, I smacked him on the back and said, "Hey, big guy, you'll be great!" He looked at me with one of those looks (the really grateful one) and smiled.
" Thanks," he said.
As he started his speech, he cleared his throat, and began
"Graduation is a time to thank those who helped you make e it through those tough years. Your parents, your teachers, your siblings, maybe a coach…but mostly your friends… I am here to tell all of you that being a friend to someone is the best gift you can give them. I am going to tell you a story."
I just looked at my friend with disbelief as he told the story of the first day we met. He had planned to kill himself over the weekend. He talked of how he had cleaned out his locker so his Mom wouldn't have to do it later and was carrying his stuff home.
He looked hard at me and gave me a little smile. "Thankfully, I was saved. My friend saved me from doing the unspeakable."
I heard the gasp go through the crowd as this handsome, popular boy told us all about his weakest moment. I saw his Mom and dad looking at me and smiling that same grateful smile. Not until that moment did I realize it's depth.
Never underestimate the power of your actions. With one small gesture you can change a person's life. For better or for worse.
God puts us all in each others lives to impact one another in some way. Look for God in others.
By Lennie Echterling
JMU Counseling Faculty
Two years ago on Valentine’s Day, a reporter from the local television station called me. She wanted to film an interview with a counselor about the psychology of love for a news feature that evening. Even though I was busy, I agreed to do it because I had a particular agenda that I wanted to promote. I have long been concerned that the media have placed entirely too much emphasis on one particular form of love – romantic. This interview would be a nice opportunity to draw attention to the other kinds of love we have for our fellow human beings. In a time in which there is so much conflict and strife in the world, I wanted to promote Valentine’s Day as a time to commemorate, cherish, and reflect on how others enrich our lives with their countless acts of love, generosity, kindness, and compassion.
Before the interview, I quickly jotted down several talking points. The first fact that I wanted to highlight was that every year teachers receive more Valentine cards than any other demographic group. Another important piece of information I wanted to note was that Valentine cards for nonromantic relationships, such as relatives and friends, dominate the greeting card racks. In fact, millions of people use this holiday to express their feelings of affection and devotion to those with whom they are not romantically involved, but nevertheless deeply love.
As the camera began to record the interview in my office, I used every chance I could to point out that love for others is not limited to only courtship. In fact, a sense of attachment is a fundamental need not only in the early years of our personal development, but also throughout our lives. Our deep bonds of loving relationships include those with our parents, caregivers, friends, relatives, mentors, teachers, spiritual leaders, and healers. I even came up with what I thought was a great sound bite. I said to the interviewer, “We celebrate our independence on the Fourth of July, but we should rejoice in our interdependence on Valentine’s Day.” I went on to talk about how we could use this day to thank those whose loving devotion had made such a big difference in our lives. Valentine’s Day was our chance to express our love and gratitude to all humanity, not just our romantic partners.
In spite of my best efforts to convince her, the interviewer wasn’t buying any of it. She kept coming back with questions about courtship and I stubbornly stayed on message. At one point, she asked, “Is there such a thing as love at first sight?”
I answered, “Of course! For example, in my work with disasters, I’ve witnessed countless acts of love that strangers offered to survivors. It’s so inspiring to see these people immediately show their love by reaching out to those in need and sharing their time, sweat, money, and hearts.”
That evening, I watched the local news and discovered that the reporter had cut nearly all of my comments. Instead, she had found another counselor who focused entirely on romantic relationships and passionate love. I was disappointed, but not surprised that this resourceful reporter had found another spokesperson in agreement with her perspective on Valentine’s Day.
A few minutes after the broadcast, I received a telephone call. I thought that it was someone who had seen the news feature, but the caller was my brother Dennis, who lived across the country from me. He had recently returned from a business trip to Thailand and telephoned to share his adventures with me. I immediately forgot about my disappointment as I heard the wonderful details about his travels, discoveries and experiences. He described the beautiful temples that he had visited, the warm people he had met, and the fun he had parasailing for the first time. Of course, I made a stupid pun about the great ties that he must have found there in Thailand. Dennis always brought the kid out in me. We also exchanged updates on our children, spouses, and day-to-day lives. After nearly an hour, we ended our conversation. We wished each other a happy Valentine’s Day and, as we had done in closing our telephone calls over the past several years, told one another, “I love you.”
Five days later, Dennis was killed in a mountain-climbing accident. The sudden and tragic loss of my brother was a painful shock. He left behind a young widow, two teenage children, and many grief-stricken relatives and friends. In my heartache and anguish, I found that I took some small comfort in the fact that our final words were affirmations of our love to one another.
As the second anniversary of my brother’s death approaches, I feel even more strongly that Valentine’s Day is a reminder to cherish and celebrate all forms of love. The fundamental challenge we face in life is not so much in finding true love with one special person as it is in recognizing the true love that is all around us. The deep and heart-felt emotional bond tying us together takes on many wonderful forms – a parent’s rapt gaze into an infant’s eyes, a mentor’s patient presence in a child’s life, a stranger’s random act of kindness, or a life-long friend’s playful bantering. Whatever the form, love is the core of our humanity, the fabric of our shared sense of community, and the measure of our meaning in life.
My intention in sharing my Valentine’s Day story is not to uplift you. Instead, my hope is to goad you into feeling a sense of urgency to make every day – not just Valentine’s Day – a labor of love. The most important lesson of that experience for me has been to treat every encounter as possibly the last I will ever have with someone. In that never-to-be-repeated moment, I have the existential choice to listen with empathy, speak from the heart, act with compassion, and show unconditional acceptance.
I was lucky that my last conversation with my brother ended with us affirming how we felt for one another. But you and I cannot leave such a vitally important message to chance. If we are truly dedicated to personal growth and thriving relationships, then we must treat every day as if it were Valentine’s Day. Once a year is hopelessly inadequate to address our fundamental needs. We need to exercise our hearts with daily workouts of compassion for all our fellow human beings.
So, this is my Valentine to you. Thank you for allowing me to share my story and I wish you the best in being an agent of compassion throughout the year!
When I arrived at work yesterday morning I started hearing rumors that a fellow student affairs staff member had been killed Monday night in a car accident. Reports were hazy, there was no confirmation from our bosses, and no mention in the local news.
The speculation and uncertainty were rough. Since she works in my building, I went to her office to see if she was there. She wasn't.
Her name was Larue. She was in her 50's and had just finished the bachelor's degree she started 12 years ago. She had been taking one or two classes a year for twelve years. She finally finished in December. More importantly, she had just become a grandmother for the first time. Also in December. She was living life out loud and loving every moment.
Monday night she pulled out of the driveway from a hair salon at a green light. An 83 year old man ran the solid red light in his lane in a huge SUV and crashed into her driver's side door. Police say she never really knew what happened and was most likely killed instantly.
I wonder what her last thoughts were.
I want to believe that when my time comes my last thoughts are going to be about the people I love. I want to make an effort to keep those people in the forefront of my mind because you never know when an SUV is going to take you out in the blink of an eye.
Larue could not have done anything differently. She is just gone.
After we got confirmation that it was, indeed, true about Larue I received three messages that illustrate the importance of loving the heck out of the people in our lives. One is a good old standby that makes the rounds in email. One was written by a counseling faculty member here at JMU about what he thinks Valentine's Day should be about. The third was written by Vox's own Tom and I'm sure many of you read it.
I believe in paying attention to the messages that present themselves in our lives so I thought I would share all these messages with you in the hopes that you might also take time to stop and think about life and what is important. Maybe they might touch your heart the way they did mine.
Yesterday was a day that I felt like God was talking to my heart. I was given or sent or made aware of four different stories/situations that all centered around the themes in the title – life, love, and death. I'm going to post them separately because some are long and I thought they might be more digestible in smaller doses.
So, before I begin, to my friends and family who read this blog: I love you, I think about each of you every day, and if the worst should happen please know that you will be in my heart forever.