by Neal Lemery
Last week, I learned that a good college friend had passed away. He wasn’t a particularly close friend in the usual ways with college friends. We did not often keep in touch, like many friends from our past. We’d run into each other at gatherings every several years. Now I realize he was a mentor and a counselor to me, roles that were much different than the usual college classmate ways.
He had a deep impact on me in college. Jim was a sensitive guy, and instinctively knew when someone was emotionally vulnerable and hurting.
I was one of the guys Jim felt that with, and he reached out to me several times, the darkest of times. I kept my emotional life close to me, letting very few people know that I was hurting, that I needed some kindness and some compassion. Young men in our culture don’t want to appear vulnerable. American men are skilled at building walls and keeping our self-doubts and fears well hidden. Such wall building is what is expected of real American men, and of course I was expected to fit in. It’s the manly thing to do.
Jim was different. He had that ability to sense my pain, and would pull me aside, find a quiet corner and look deep into my soul.
He had that way about him, that instant trust and insight to pull out of me the dark thoughts, the self-doubts, the emotional pain that I thought I had been so clever in hiding from everyone, including myself. He could open me up and he would listen, deeply and without judgment.
Jim would normalize my feelings and give words to what I was wrestling with, repeating my fears and doubts so that I could hear what I was thinking and fearing, that I was not really crazy or on the edge of going nuts, that I was a human being who needed some compassion and friendship. I admired all of that in him, and I wanted to be much more like him, his vulnerability and his confidence in being a trustworthy and helpful man.
He had that gift, and I often saw him use his skills and his humanity to help others, to guide people into self-understanding and to find their passions and place in adult life. Not one to seek adulation, he did this work quietly, always protecting privacy and avoiding gossip. He was a trust builder and a healer, and practiced his skills on the fringes of college life, places where the walking wounded would go to seek out anonymity.
Jim went on to do other great things in his life. An overseas study trip took him to the Middle East where he became involved in charity and economic development work. He returned to campus, to change his major to international business. He went back to the Middle East, where he devoted his life to economic development and helping the needy, making a profound difference in the lives of others, being the Good American in a region where that was a rarity. He did well, because he was kind and charitable, because people could trust him, and because he lived what he believed about people.
We didn’t need to be in regular communication with each other, or meet at all the reunions. I knew Jim would be there for me if I needed him, and that he was still having his “Jim Moments” with people on the other side of the world.
I found myself following his example in my own work, reaching out and engaging people in their dark moments, having those quiet conversations and going deep into their emotional lives, offering respect and cultivating compassion and mutual positive regard. And in that work, I found the blessings that such work gives a person, the rewards of making a difference, by being a kindly, truthworthy friend and an advocate for decency and understanding.
In such moments, I’d chuckle to myself, realizing I was following Jim’s footsteps, that I was in the middle of a “Jim Moment”, that his teachings to me had been a profound and vital lesson, one of the most important lessons I’d learned in college. I’d ask myself, “What would Jim do?” in this situation. That would open the door for some productive conversations and effective steps forward.
I’m mourning Jim’s death today, and wondering how best to remember him, to continue on with his legacy. I’m realizing it is in those “Jim Moments” that he came back to me, when I would again feel his big hugs of friendship and compassion. This world needs more of those “Jim Moments”, when we open our hearts to someone, to truly listen and suspend our judgments, when we are accepting and open to others’ pain, when we can practice empathy, and help develop a plan on moving forward.
Jim will live on in such kind acts, and in the bonds that are made with others in times of uncertainty, confusion and self-doubt. I’m comforted by knowing that, and, more importantly, by getting out into the world, being more aware, and carrying on with Jim’s mission, and his “Jim Moments”.