One of my dearest childhood friends, Kevin, was diagnosed on October 23 with stage IV glioblastoma: brain cancer. This is a man who got a PhD from Duke University and became faculty at Cornell, Princeton, and the University of Pittsburgh. But more importantly to me, this is the almost-brother with whom I played at the beach every Sunday, walked dogs, pulled Christmas crackers, and goaded into dancing with my father in a restaurant—as a teenager. This is the guy I can’t beat at Blockhead, tennis, or word games but who is simultaneously one of the nicest people I know and always has a smile for everyone.
Without treatment, Kevin’s neurosurgeon said Kevin might live three months—although of course, there is treatment.
One never knows how you would react to such news. My guess for myself would be denial, fury, indignant cries of unfairness, bottomless grief. Kevin’s reaction was none of those, or at least those emotions were a distant second to something different. He told us he became aware of two things. First was his contentment with how good his life has been; and secondly was awareness of how connected we all are, this family of humanity.
“If you think of me during the day, please just use the moment to think about your shared connection with humanity, and our fragility—not just to cancer but to the hardships of life. And perhaps let that influence you a bit during your day,” Kevin wrote.
But the funny thing about fragility is that it’s not always obvious who is fragile and when.
We get many requests for visitors to come to Roshan Learning Center “to help.” We deeply value those offers and we cannot operate without the help of the people who come to help us. But invariably the teachers and visitors who come to volunteer with our community of asylum seekers and refugees are changed by the experience and not in the ways they expected. They expect to do a good deed and feel good about it; they leave feeling lucky they came.
“You have no idea how much being part of this community has meant to me,” said Greta, one of our departing long-term volunteers. “I’ve learned so much more from them than they have learned from me,” said Tobias. “Working here is an absolute blessing to me; I need them more than they need me,” said Christine.
One exchange in particular stands out to me from recent weeks. A high school student from an affluent international school was part of a group coming to do fun activities with the primary school students at Roshan. As the student and I sat at the table chatting, the mother of three boys in the program came to rest with us, and so I introduced the student and mother. The mother, a young widow, is a very elegant lady, poised and gentle. She thanked the student for coming, smiling and saying, “We are so lucky, you come here to help us.”
The student seemed not to have heard her and continued tapping away at her laptop, and so the mother and I started talking about the difficulties of reining in a rambunctious three-year-old. But then we noticed that the student had tears coming down her cheeks. “I can’t believe you feel lucky,” she said.
In that moment, my heart went out to this girl. She—a talented, lovely, star student with a loving family likely living in a nice home and certainly attending one of the best schools in the world, with a bright future in front of her—seemed so fragile. Sometimes those of us who have been given the most are the most fragile ones, if we are not careful to cultivate gratitude and contentment intentionally.
The student was aware in that second of how strong this woman was, of how much resilience and resourcefulness this woman must have had to have gotten herself and three small children across the world alone in the most dangerous of circumstances after her husband was killed. To have done that and to have gratitude for the life of poverty, isolation, and hardship she is living in Jakarta shows immense strength. The student recognized this and it touched something in her.
It made me think of Kevin.
It makes us feel small and humble—fragile—to be in the presence of people who have seen the worst of life and come through it with gratitude, kindness and optimism remaining. We wonder if we could have such strength facing the same circumstances.
My hope for all of us this Christmas season is that we can each be “a force for generosity, compassion, and simply being nice to others,” as Kevin wrote. With every act of kindness and generosity, we cultivate that gratitude and contentment. It’s a gift to give ourselves this Christmas.