For me, the last few years have been an extraordinary mix of ups and downs. On the positive side, after eight years courtship Kathi and I married, and I had a book of my own published and then Kathi and I had one published together. On the other side of the balance sheet, we were each treated for cancer; and my job in publishing at HarperOne was eliminated. (Given that I was working for Rupert Murdoch, I suppose I should be happy that I wasn’t eliminated.)
I enjoy thinking about big, abstract ideas, like the meaning of life, God, history, and art. This may explain why I have made so little money in my life. I have tried to develop a reasonably coherent philosophy. But when I was pacing the halls of the hospital in November, awaiting the doctor’s report after my wife’s emergency surgery, I noticed a distinct change in the nature of my thoughts and feelings. I was no smarter or deeper, and my character was as flawed as ever, but there was a lot less of what might be called intellectual puttering and emotional frittering in my head and heart.
Crisis focuses the mind. My beliefs and passions were stripped of frill and fat, and my values and priorities were dramatically changed. The vanity of constantly measuring who is best looking, most clever, famous, athletic, powerful, popular, richest, toughest, and so on, was revealed as ultimately ephemeral. The competition for resources that consumes so much of our days seemed suddenly to be missing the point of life entirely.
Here’s what matters: the blessing of friends; family; good food; people checking in on each other; knowing that the people you love are safe; laughter; music; forgiveness; hope. And life itself—having another day.
Here’s what matters: being kind; acts of generosity; easing someone’s suffering; taking notice of the forgotten; helping the weak; making the world a little more beautiful, a little more fun, and a little safer.
I often daydreamed that one day I would be powerful or rich enough to do something so magnificently generous that all my petty sins and all my little hurts would be forever salved. Everyone would love me, and as for my enemies, well, I’d show them.
I will never be powerful or rich, and even if I was, I could never repay the miraculous gifts I have been given—life itself, second chances, the ability to read, and speak, and sing, and laugh. And love.
I have been showered with love, but I haven’t always believed this or noticed. But in the last few years, as Kathi and I have gone through illness and job loss, I have come to see how generous, kind, and caring the world can be. So many people have given so much, starting with my family, my brothers and sisters and children and cousins. But there are so many others—friends who dropped off food at our door or shipped us wonderful or whimsical gifts. Calls that came just when we needed one—people who came out of nowhere to offer their help, and hope, and comfort.
Sometimes the world appears to be filled with violence, cruelty, hate, lying, vanity, and greed. That world is real, but it is not the truth. There is a verse in the New Testament that says, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” When times are hard I sense the presence of a cloud of witnesses—the people who have walked this earth before me trying to be good, and the people who have offered a helping hand. I feel their presence now especially, and by no means only in the mystical sense. The witness comes in the form of a text message, or phone call, or email, or meal, or gift, or a hug. I swear I can even feel people who are pausing in their day and thinking about us.
This is my family—from my beloved kin to someone I met only last month—offering the support they can, taking some of the weight off of us and holding us up until we have the strength to hold ourselves up again—until we have the strength to pass along our love to another sister or brother.