I was reflecting on my first visit to Robert F. Kennedy’s gravesite (posted in a Throwback Thursday pic I uploaded to Instagram earlier). It’s hardly the first time I have reflected on such things, but today I had a realization of something that has been true for a long time, but that I guess I just found the right words to describe.
Whatever empathy I have within me was formed long before I made that deep and meaningful connection to Robert Kennedy’s legacy as a young adult. I can trace my character traits, good and bad, back to certain people in my past (and present). All the good I may possess within me is thanks to someone else. It is those folks who instilled those things in me, who planted those seeds. It was then up to me to keep the seeds alive.
My empathy, though, was learned the hard way. The bullies of my youth, who mercilessly taunted and mocked me for something I could not change, taught me well what it means to be treated as less-than, with scorn and with ridicule. More to the point, they taught me how that feels.
I remember it in some way every single day. I just try to turn it upside down. I couldn’t bear to know I’d made someone feel even a fraction of that feeling, and I go out of my way to try to make sure that I don’t.
So, whatever empathy I may possess has been there a very long time, but it was RFK who put the fire beneath that empathy. Who’s memory keeps it at a slow boil. Bobby Kennedy, or more accurately the legacy he left behind, taught me not just to care, but what doing something about it looks like. In the same way my grandfather taught me what a gentle man looks like, or my mom taught me a work ethic, Bobby showed me how to speak up, and that we must. We can’t change anything if we don’t first say something. All around us there are people who need us to do that.
Talking will only get us so far, but I’ll let the man himself take it from here:
“Of course, if we must act effectively we must deal with the world as it is. We must get things done. But if there was one thing that President Kennedy stood for that touched the most profound feeling of young people around the world, it was the belief that idealism, high aspirations, and deep convictions are not incompatible with the most practical and efficient of programs — that there is no basic inconsistency between ideals and realistic possibilities, no separation between the deepest desires of heart and of mind and the rational application of human effort to human problems. It is not realistic or hardheaded to solve problems and take action unguided by ultimate moral aims and values, although we all know some who claim that it is so. In my judgment, it is thoughtless folly. For it ignores the realities of human faith and of passion and of belief — forces ultimately more powerful than all of the calculations of our economists or of our generals. Of course to adhere to standards, to idealism, to vision in the face of immediate dangers takes great courage and takes self-confidence. But we also know that only those who dare to fail greatly, can ever achieve greatly.”
My first visit to Arlington Cemetery was almost 20 years ago. I have been back to Bobby’s gravesite several times since. Each time I have a little chat with him, almost always consisting of only a couple of words.