Religious hegemony. Political gridlock. National uncertainty. International conflict.
As we begin this new year, we need to go no further than a click of the remote control to see that we live in an era of increasing personal, interpersonal, national, and international struggle. A day does not go by without some negative or disheartening news breaking the airwaves, punctured only by political commentary that prey on our emotions, inciting more frustration and anger. We now live in a world where problems are magnified, where reason gives way to the loudest voices, where division and the “me vs. you” mentality is in vogue. And sadly, this division feeds on itself, fueled by the anger that it itself creates.
Religious freedom, racial & gender equality, gun rights, immigration, health care, taxes, and entitlements… just those words alone can incite the most animated and passionate responses from our fellow citizens. Surely, a democratic republic hinges on the healthy debate of these issues, and we as people should be encouraged to engage with each other. But, if discussion and debate turn into bias, anger, and hatred, then the only way to solve our big problems is to address the small ones first – by taking a good, hard look in the mirror. So today, in this public forum, I would like to make a New Year’s Resolution, and I invite you to join me…
Today, exactly one year ago, I lost one of my closest friends, Kevin Ballantine. It was a long and painful struggle for an innocent soul who wanted nothing more than to make the world a better place. Before he bid us farewell, he left us with this final request:
Remember that life is fleeting, and there are more important things than grudges or ill wishes. Underneath our different skin colors, yarmulkes, head scarves, or crucifix necklaces, we’re still the same people. We still want the same thing – for people to be nice to us. All I ask of those who want to help me is this – treat your strangers as you would your best friends.
.. We are all forced to share the same planet, like it or not. And we are ALL responsible for that planet, for the sake of ourselves and our children… So if you want to do something for me, here’s what you can do. Be nice to those you encounter, don’t hold grudges, and please – hold your government accountable. Get involved, make your voice heard… don’t just believe something because you’re told to, research it yourself and come to your own conclusions. Independent thought is the backbone of an intelligent society, and is what separates us from the mob mentality…
Frankly, it has taken no less than a year for me to muster enough courage to purposely reflect back upon that day – those brief, poignant hours – when Kevin’s family and friends gathered to celebrate his short but honorable life in his hometown of DeKalb, IL. Kevin’s funeral service was packed with scores upon scores of people, all to bid him farewell on that cold, snowy Illinois day. I knelt by Kevin’s side to offer a silent prayer while he slept peacefully, knowing that although we must part ways, his noble legacy and unique talent for uniting people of all religious and political persuasions would never, never die.
As I joined the processional to the familiar, sweeping tunes of “Here I Am Lord,” I realized with utmost clarity that humanity speaks not in languages, but in shared spirit. We are defined not by our religious affiliations, but by our ability to come together in the face of life and death. That day, in one room, gathered people of all races, sects, and kind. Kevin had that ability to unite them all, and because of that, his voice and impact on peoples’ lives grew exponentially. No late-night talk show host or political media pundit could even come close to touching the hearts of those of us in that room in the way that Kevin did. Four priests guided the funeral ceremonies that day, and they all could not say enough good things about Kevin. To witness seasoned religious leaders uncontrollably break down in tears while thanking a 23-year old for the lessons of love that he has taught them speaks volumes about Kevin’s integrity and wisdom.
I was given the dubious honor of serving as one of the pallbearers, alongside Kevin’s siblings and closest friends. With Kevin’s parents and the rest of the crowd waiting patiently inside the church, I stood at the door, attempting to digest the magnitude of the responsibility bestowed upon me to give Kevin the final sendoff. It was all I could do to keep from breaking down. As we lifted his casket out the door, I glanced over my right shoulder and noticed the four priests standing there, serenely, with palms together, and with eyes filling with tears. “Our job here is done,” their look seemed to say. “It is now your responsibility, as Kevin’s best friends, to join him on the final leg of his earthly journey.”
As we proceeded down the sidewalk, a brief but gentle burst of snow flurries filled the air – the perfect scene for Kevin’s final farewell. “See ya, Kev,” I heard coming from ahead of me. Kevin’s childhood friend was doing his best to keep it together, but with those words, we both broke down in tears.
“Take care, buddy… we love you.”
Few moments in life are as viscerally gut-wrenching as carrying the remains of your close friend – who is younger than you – and having to send him off at the age of 23. It is a moment that shakes you to the very core of your being. As Kevin drove away amidst the snowflakes, these questions swirled in my head: How would I ever make sense of this? What will I do with the reminder of my own life? How can I make this world a better place, so that I can fulfill a part of my friend’s will, however small my part may be?
Trust me. A moment like that forever changes you… but for the better. I realized that even in the silence of that dark hour, there is a calm serenity and a sense of beauty in knowing that we did in fact make the best out of the time that we shared here on earth, and that is a source of happiness for all of our human relationships – strangers and loved ones alike.
Am I making the most out of my time? Am I working to unite those around me, or am I making life more difficult by dividing others for those ultimately petty differences? Whether we like it or not, we all share the same fate of being leveled on the plane of time. Sooner or later, we too must accept the mysteries of the great beyond. With courage, Kevin taught us that there is nothing to fear and that our limited amount of time is best spent on uniting others, because to spend time dwelling on divisive emotions would be foolish.
With this realization, I returned to the church, wiping away tears of no longer sadness but of a subtle, delicate peace. The four priests were still standing there, with their palms together, waiting for our return. At that moment, it did not matter that I was not Catholic. It did not matter that I did not know them personally. It did not matter what religion or faith divided us. All of that fell away. Their sincerity while performing the ritual, while speaking, and while simply smiling, conveyed the greatest lesson of life – that of our shared humanity. I went to each of them and thanked them individually for all that they had done for Kevin and their congregations. “Thank you so much for all that you do.”
Meanwhile, the sweet melody of the second movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata graced the air, bringing me back to my childhood on the piano bench, where I spent hours learning this same exact piece of music. Little did I know that someday, this musical masterpiece would serve as the final eulogy for my friend – gone but never forgotten.
So today, in memory of my friend Kevin, I would like to make this New Year’s Resolution:
When given the opportunity, I will purposely go out of my way to reach out to a friend whose political or religious beliefs may differ from mine. Although I acknowledge that the alternative is often easier, I will purposely open dialogue with those whom I may disagree. While in discussion, I will avoid the temptation to inject negative emotions into the debate that serve to divide, rather than unite. Like snowflakes on a cold winter day, I acknowledge that each person is unique. But rather than focus on the different characteristics that divide us, I will see that what lies underneath each unique snowflake is the pure water that is often neglected but is equal and shared by all. By accepting this challenge, I can make this world a better place.
Will you join me in this New Year’s Resolution?