Trying

Laying a rose at RFK's grave, 1994I realized something this morning.

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.

“I’m trying.”

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Some Of My Best Friends Are Gay

Candle burningIt’s happened again.

Another gay teen has taken his own life because of bullying.

“My name is Brandon Joseph Elizares and I couldn’t make it. I love you guys with all of my heart,” read the note he left behind before he committed suicide on June 2nd in Texas.

Brandon was 16. He will always be 16.

We are, it seems to me, supposed to be better than this. We shake our heads in sadness, or disgust, or because that’s what we’re conditioned to do. Brandon’s school, his mom has said, apparently did all it could to stop the bullying he suffered. Where were the peers who could have stepped in? Where were the leaders and champions? Where were the allies? Where were the friends?

I am pleased to have reconnected with a good friend from high school over the past few years. We grew closest in our senior year at Onondaga Central and the summer after. He did not come out as gay until years later, and as we lost touch as tends to happen when life moves on, I didn’t become aware of this fact until shortly before getting back in touch with him.

We had lunch while I was on a business trip in 2009. In addition to the general catching up were some more serious topics. I said to my old friend that I wished he would have been able to live as “himself” back at school. To have been able to not fight a constant internal war against who he is and who he was “supposed to be.”

My friend sort of shrugged and said, “I just couldn’t stand the thought of any of you guys calling me a faggot.”

Unfortunately, the best answer to that I could muster was “I would hope that we wouldn’t have done that.”

His friends.

Now, more than ever, we need more than “hope.” We need people of character, people with moral courage, to stand up and say that enough is enough.

One of the things I believe most strongly is the old chestnut that “you are either a part of the solution or a part of the problem.” All great movements require allies not directly affected by a new order of things. Civil Wars did not erupt over the Women’s Suffrage Movement, or the Civil Rights Movement, in some part because of the participation of allies who were not women or people of color.

I have it made. I am a middle-aged, heterosexual, white man in America. I understand that with that comes great opportunity…and great responsibility.

One of the central guiding figures in my life is Robert F. Kennedy, who said, “(f)ew are willing to brave the disapproval of their peers, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.

These young lives ending barely as they’ve begun are our national disgrace. So, too, they are our national responsibility. “The Nation” won’t stop them, though. Because this is a human problem and it requires a human solution. It requires you, and it requires me. It requires the strength of character and the courage of will to simply do what is right.

To stand up.

To speak up.

To allow each of us the chance to live our lives as we are, not as who others want us to be.

So that one day soon, tragedies like Brandon’s will not happen again.

 

Life By What We Give

Generational HandsI used to have a large framed print in my office. It had an artsy photograph in closeup of a child holding a man’s hand. The caption read, in quoting Winston Churchill:

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

This past Saturday night it was my honor to attend with my wife the annual Distinguished Alumni Awards dinner at my alma mater, Le Moyne College. In particular, I was there to celebrate the honors bestowed upon Leslie Shaw, Ph.D. ’62, who was presented the Distinguished Alumnus Award, and Gabriel Bol Deng ’07, who received the Ignation Young Alumnus Award.

Les is the Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; Co-Director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Lab; Interim Director of the Clinical Chemistry Lab; and Co-Director of the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative at UPenn.

All of those titles may make your head spin a bit, so I’ll boil it down for you: among numerous notable accomplishments, Les Shaw is on the cutting edge of research that is finding ways to predict, and thus significantly slow the progression of, Alzheimer’s Disease. Can those advances be far from an eventual cure?

The research on which his team works is widely collaborative. That in itself is inspiring for those of us who have read And The Band Played On and know the competitive history of medical research. I had an opportunity to tour the lab facilities with Les a few years ago. While some of the terminology was lost on me, the inspiration he drew and the excitement and purpose with which he undertakes his work was palpable.

At a time when many of his contemporaries are retired from their chosen professions, Les Shaw is still working at his…with passion mind you…striving for a healthier world. This man, doing this lives-altering work, has also been married to his beloved Mary for more than 40 years and is a proud father and beaming grandfather.

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Gabriel Bol Deng is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, having fled his village at age 10 after being separated from his parents during the Second Sudanese Civil War. He stayed as a refugee in Ethiopia and Kenya for about 14 years before coming to Syracuse in 2001.

We are both alumni of Onondaga Community College and Le Moyne, Gabe earning degrees in math education and philosophy. When he graduated from Le Moyne in 2007, he was named Student Teacher of the Year…in part for the work he did at Onondaga Central, where I spent my own formative years.

In 2009, the acclaimed documentary Rebuilding Hope chronicled Gabe’s return to southern Sudan, with two fellow Lost Boys, to search for their families.

Gabe has founded HOPE for Ariang to build an elementary school in his native village of Ariang in South Sudan.HOPE for Ariang The families there also have fresh water from wells drilled thanks to his efforts. The Foundation continues to raise funds for supplies, teachers, teacher training, fencing to enclose the campus, and solar power equipment.

Of all the people I’ve ever met, I can’t think of anyone who displays better the simple beauty of the best we can be than Gabriel Bol Deng. For all the harshness and darkness he has experienced and the death he has seen, he fills a room with a genuine kindness and light every time I have been in his company. He is not an inspiration because he has done great things, and will no doubt do more. It is that he has done them against seemingly insurmountable odds…and that he has done them for others.

We make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”

Most of the time, life isn’t as much about what happens to you, as it is about how you respond. We all have our struggles and we all have our obstacles. Some of us become prisoners of them, even letting them define us long after those obstacles appear to be gone. Others simply will not, defining themselves instead on what they do now.

I know with certainty that I am a better man for having been in the good company of Leslie Shaw and Gabriel Bol Deng, as I try to be just a little bit more like they are.

Striving to make a life by what I give.

Wikipedia: I is the ninth letter and a vowel in the ISO basic Latin alphabet.

From The Darkness Of Hate To The Light Of Hope

The Lorraine MotelI had the opportunity, for the first time, to visit Memphis, TN last year. One of the places I knew I had to visit was the Lorraine Motel, the assassination site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and as importantly, now the site of the National Civil Rights Museum.

To say that standing in the parking lot, below the balcony in front of room 306, was poignant would be ridiculously understated. There probably aren’t enough words to describe exactly what it was, emotionally, to be there. Suffice it to say, that it was smaller than I imagined, and still echoing the cries of millions.

The thing is, at a spot where we experienced one of the darkest moments in our history here in the United States, there was light everywhere. The employees, the volunteers, the visionaries who created and run the NCRM have wrestled away the darkness from this place, and shone a light of hope and equality and freedom for everyone.

I took my time on my trip through the museum. I went alone, which somehow seemed right for this first time visit. I made my way through the exhibits. I stared for a long time in to the window of the preserved room where Dr. King spent his last hours on Earth (he liked coffee as much as I do, it appears). I learned. I felt guilty. I felt proud.

At the end of my self-guided tour, on the advice of a helpful and friendly volunteer there, I went in to the little theater and watched a short documentary film. As the lights came up at the end,  I had to compose myself for a few moments before I could go back out in to the world.

Directed by Adam Pertofsky and nominated for an Academy Award a couple of years ago,The Witness: From the Balcony of Room 306 is a riveting account of Dr. King’s trip to Memphis in support of striking sanitation workers, and in particular the man who was the only one on the balcony with him when he was shot, Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles. Dr. Kyles is as inspirational to me in this film as is Dr. King. He has carried forth these four decades a heavy burden, to bear witness, and he has done it well. I hope one day I have the chance to meet him and to thank him for the way he has lived his life.

On my way out the door I thanked the volunteer who had recommended I see the film and told him I was bringing a copy home so my kids could see it, too.

Those of us who have it better than those who came before us, have an obligation to pass along a world that is better than we found it. We’re 40+ years on now, and plenty of us are still not “judged by the content of our character.” To say that we have not come a long way would be wrong, but to pretend we don’t still have a long way to go would be just as wrong.

We need to actively keep the dream alive. We need to keep The National Civil Rights Museum a tangible touchstone for us, and our kids, and their kids, and theirs.

In the months leading up to my Memphis trip last year I had become aware of and joined www.crowdrise.com. Co-founded by actor Edward Norton (American History X, Fight Club), Crowdrise is essentially a social networking site for the greater good.

Upon discovering it, I immediately began to realize that Crowdrise is a great tool to bring critical mass to critical issues. Still, for my first attempt at participation there via my own “project,” I wanted to ensure I did something that would first and foremost resonate strongly with me.

After visiting the NCRM, it was clear what my first project would be.

They say you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been. Nowhere is that more true than in Memphis, TN at the National Civil Rights Museum, where “they will never, ever kill the dream.”

http://www.crowdrise.com/20for20yearsthenatio/fundraiser/KPMcClave

“Martin Luther King didn’t die in some foolish way. He didn’t overdose. He wasn’t shot by a jealous lover. He wasn’t shot leaving the scene of a crime. He was a man with an earned PhD degree at 28, a Nobel Peace Prize . . . Oratorical skills off the charts. All the things he could have been, U.N. ambassador, big churches all over America. He could have been a university president. All the things he could have been, and here he is with all these skills, dying on a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, helping garbage workers.” ~Rev. Samuel “Billy” Kyles