The past two weeks have been exemplary of life’s highs and lows – at least, in my life that’s certainly been the case. Two weeks ago I had the distinct privilege of delivering CBU’s tenth annual “Last Lecture.” I’ve told people I’ve spoken with since that that was, without a doubt, one of the most special days of my life. Simply being invited to do so was a real joy, but what made it truly special and unforgettable was the love I received before, during, and after speaking – especially from students; I honestly can’t recall the last time I felt so loved by so many people (outside of my family).
I spoke about the importance of friendship – not only in terms of the vital role it plays in who we are, but also in our ability to envision and forge the kind of future our hearts most desire – but I experienced the gift or grace of friendship in and through these students.
The following Monday – last Monday, May 1 – I was pulled out of a meeting in Student Life and told my dad had suffered a massive heart attack, and was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Minneapolis; he died four days later. Last Friday, I lost my hero, my rock, my confidant, a veritable fount of knowledge and wisdom who taught me how to be a man, a husband, a father, a friend, a person of goodness and integrity. It’s thrown me completely off-balance.
In my lost, disconsolate, disoriented state, I reached out to one of my very best friends, who lives in Green Bay, and told him I wasn’t really sure how to live now (if that makes any sense). My friend, Denver, is not only one of a handful of best friends, he’s also a clinical psychologist who works closely with veterans suffering from PTSD. This is what he told me:
“Hi Scott, what you said makes perfect sense to me since, as you know, I lost my own father this past November. When your dad passed away you lost a part of yourself. Your sense of self and worldview heretofore included your dad, and the pain you feel is the deep inner tear and vacant place where he once was. And now you must navigate forward without his physical presence. Something that may seem very difficult initially, which is why you’ll need your friends; they will be the comfort you need and will help to re-orient you.”
I read a recent article in the “wellness” section of The New York Times titled, “Friendship: In Sickness and in Health,” that begins this way: “A silver lining in the dark cloud of serious illness – your own or a loved one’s – is the help and caring offered by friends, and the way that help can deepen friendships.”
While I was touched deeply by my students’ love after my (hypothetical) “Last Lecture,” the outpouring of care, concern, kindness, and love I’ve experienced since my dad’s death has been absolutely overwhelming. This entire community has embraced me, cried with me, walked with me and beside me, prayed for me, and condoled with me: that is to say, you haven’t tried to take my pain and sense of lost-ness away; rather, you love me enough to want to share it. In short, you’ve been the face of Love – the human face of God – to me, and that is an immeasurable gift, an ineffable Grace.
I read a few years ago of a study done at the University of Virginia. Researchers studied 34 undergraduates at UVA, taking them to the base of a steep hill and fitting them with a weighted backpack. The students were then asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Some students stood next to friends during the exercise, while others stood alone. This is what they found: The students who stood with friends gave lower estimates of the steepness of the hill. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.
The researchers concluded that people with stronger friendship networks feel like there is someone they can turn to, and that every life in which friendship plays a part is, undoubtedly, a better life than one without it. I knew this before, but now I believe it.
Peace like a river,