I had coffee with Ryan this morning. We talked about films and storytelling, about goals and our aspirations. Eventually, our conversation turned to tragedy. A close friend of his (a person I know, like and respect), is going through a tough time right now. I won’t get into the details, but that served as a context for our conversation about the experience of ‘growing up.’
Neither of us are children. We’re both married and have three kids, somewhere more than a third of the way between college and retirement. But we’ve reached the age when things have started happening with more regularity. Friends getting divorced, others getting sick. Parents – not ours thank God – are starting to pass away. Just like your early to mid-20s are defined by weddings, so too are your late thirties defined by tragic events in other people’s lives and sometimes our own.
We talked about the nature of tragedy, how it can seem like tragic events are pinpoints, rocks dropped into a perfectly calm pool from which ripples expand in concentric circles. But we quickly came to the conclusion that the ripple-effect of tragedy implies passivity by those not in the center; that simply experiencing the tragedy of another is a passive act.
But it’s not.
We are not defined by the tragedy in our lives. We are defined by our response to it. When a good friend goes through sickness or loss, we are not passengers in the relationship, but active participants in it. Ryan’s friend lost someone dear to him. The definition of how that tragedy impacts Ryan lies not in his knowledge of it, but in his response to it. If he keeps his distance and stays quiet, he becomes a victim of another’s tragedy. But if he doubles down, if he shows up before he’s asked for, he creates an echo of positivity that goes against the tragic ripple.
I believe in Free Will. I also believe in God. And I believe that God gave us the ability to make up our minds in order to give us the opportunity to learn from and for ourselves in the face of adversity. I believe this to be one of the bedrock principles that define the human condition. And because I believe these things, I believe my echo, my response to a tragedy is my opportunity to exercise that will.
I haven’t always understood this. There was a time when I didn’t show up; when I wasn’t there for friends who may have needed me, who definitely needed me, because I thought it wasn’t my place or I wasn’t welcome. It tainted those relationships. In one instance, not roaring back with an echo is among one of my greatest regrets. But just as my will allows me to respond, it also instructs me to learn from that experience.
We can go through life tossed and turned by the ripples, allowing them to become waves and eventually a maelstrom. Or we can turn and face them and create waves of our own – waves of empathy and sympathy, of caring, love and regard. We can be thrown by the storm or we can turn and face it.
Ryan and his wife, Jill, are the kind of people who shout into the hurricane, the kind of people who show before they are called. They exercise their will and create echoes.
It’s a lot to think about on a Friday, but these kinds of conversations over coffee are in and of themselves, echoes against the coming waves. And I, for one, am choosing to be heard.