Lately it’s easy to get the feeling of swimming against the current. Messages and actions of peace and love are so important, yet the voices of the hateful are so much louder at times. And I will admit that since the Boston Marathon bombing, it has taken me some time to regroup both from the horror that so many of us feel about the event and from the demoralizing sense of being unable to keep pace with the amount of tragedy going down (which, of course, is compounded exponentially when looking beyond our country’s borders). Is chanting “love wins” a realistic and energy-efficient thing when there is such evidence that we’re better off saving our energy and curling up in a fetal position under the kitchen table as we await Armageddon? Ultimately, I’ve concluded that the answer is YES, and I want to offer posthumous thanks to my young friend Lester for helping me solidify that position.
In 2005, a bit more than a year into our own parenting journey, we met Steve and Daphne, who quickly became friends and mentors. They were the first (and still among the few) people we had ever met who had undertaken parenting in the manner that we had – taking in older kids without ever having raised younger ones. They had been doing this for years at this point, with an adult son who had by that point been in their family for a long time, and at the time they had recently begun raising Lester, then 17 years old.
Lester’s life before this had been rough to say the least. Of the various less-positive behaviors that would manifest over time, some were pretty innocuous (the confederate flag belt buckle, for example) and some less so, but Steve and Daphne stayed by him, even when it meant clearing their schedules to accommodate the visiting hours of the jail where he was incarcerated for some time for transgressions that were far more stupid than dangerous. We got to hang out with Lester on a few occasions and it was consistently clear that beyond the bluster, he was just a kid, and an extremely sweet, kind-hearted kid at that.
When the time came for Lester to be released from jail late in 2011, Steve and Daphne were there for him – something that is on one level a given for parents, but on another level would be considered “above and beyond” by most of our society given that they began fostering Lester pretty late in the game and had no legal obligation to be present for him anymore. They were encouraged by some signs that he was getting his act together. Then early last year we go the news that he had gone missing, and after several months he was found, having taken his own life not far from their home.
I have found myself thinking about Lester for two reasons. One is that in the sessions for the Ripples album, we just recorded the composition I wrote in his honor. The all-star band for this tune included Chris Dingman, Kris Allen, Linda Oh, Johnathan Blake and soloists Jimmy Greene and Kenny Barron (taking the piano chair as I slid over to organ) and they brought tremendous life to this music. The melody is based on the following text from an email Steve sent me reflecting on their processing of what happened to Lester:
Any sorrow we feel is for ourselves, since we don’t believe that Lester is going to suffer any more for what he did. In fact, we believe that the soul goes on and on, taking birth after birth until it finally gets it right. So we feel Lester is moving forward and we assume that next life he won’t start off with such a heavy burden of abuse and neglect to endure.
In many ways it’s almost a miracle that our kids survive at all, which makes us realize just how much we have to celebrate their lives as much as we can.
The other thing that keeps bringing Lester to mind is the cognitive dissonance that occurs when one does the right thing but the weight of the competing obstacles is overwhelming. Being principled and courageous and committed to doing good is challenging enough when we have the positive reinforcement of tangibly positive outcomes. Any rallying cry to get people involved in doing good uses positive outcomes as a selling point – not many people want to volunteer to clean up a neighborhood populated by people hostile to their efforts who will then re-trash it days later.
So, then, did Steve and Daphne squander their energies by devoting them to someone who in the end didn’t “make it?” Does this mean that we should just try to identify those who can be helped to more heartwarming outcomes and focus on them? Some surely find this tempting. In fact, while we’re at it, let’s make schools only available to high-achieving kids and limit medical care to healthy people. Are you limited in artistic talent? Well, no drawing classes for you. And if you contribute to losing a little league game, then never mind whether you competed well, you are off the team kiddo, lest you further sully their perfect performance. Just think what gratification teachers and doctors and coaches will feel from the consistent success they’ll experience!
Ultimately, all of our lives are finite, so how do we even measure the “outcome” of a life? While Lester’s demons may have “won out” in the end, he also experienced years of unconditional love and it was quite moving to see how that nourished him and counterbalanced the many wounds within. Many would label Steve and Daphne as idealists (with some people even using that as a derogatory term, implying some sort of separation from reality) but the last time I checked, virtually all spiritual practices and most secular philosophies on our planet demand that we take this sort of responsibility for others.
The reason to persevere in caring for others and striving for peace, love and brotherhood is not so we can produce positive statistics, but simply because it is the right thing to do and it nourishes all of us. There will be more tragedy, and some of us will be damaged in ways we can’t entirely fix. The fetal position option may sound good for a minute, but ultimately we need to endure both as individuals and collectively as members of the human race. Dark moments do not obliterate beauty and kindness and human history is filled with heroic actions that may have seemed futile in the moment yet contributed to the forward motion of humankind.
So in the end, we’re back where we started: love wins. Love wins even when the obvious yardsticks for measuring outcomes might seem to suggest a different short-term conclusion. I’m not immune to cynicism, I assure you, but ultimately now is not a time to wallow in disillusionment. My inner idealist knows that love must win because no other outcome is acceptable, and my inner pragmatist sees that forward motion for humanity must occur in incremental steps, and each loving action represents one of these steps, even when tragedy can’t be erased in the process.
So thank you, Steve and Daphne, for the inspiration and the potent lessons. I shall continue to reject the notion that our planet is debased enough that anyone with a soul could make a credible case against acting as you did. And I’m sure that Lester’s soul is now at peace and I’m grateful that, thanks to you, he was so well-loved while he was with us in this realm.