It’s funny how death can make us selfish.
Or maybe that’s just who we are as humans with all the instant social media connections we hold so dear. Maybe we just think that everything is, in fact, about us.
Last week we lost an amazingly funny and wise human, but not the one you’re thinking about. While the rest of the country was posting photos and stories based on their connection to Robin Williams I got the news that one of my mentors was in his final days. I had noted that everyone online seemed to be adding photos of when they met Robin Williams and telling stories of how he had somehow impacted their lives. I couldn’t help but note the not so thinly veiled truth that this was just another excuse to be selfish and brag about meeting a celebrity or to make everyone think that they were more advanced, more civilized because they had learned something from a man they didn’t know or barely knew.
Soon the word came that this mentor who I’d known for many years - this man who had tangibly affected my life for the better - was no longer in pain and that he had shed his mortal coil. And all I could think was, I need to write something about this. The hypocrisy was staggering.
Of course when we reflect on someone’s life, we think about our interaction with that person. Our own experience is our touchstone for this consideration. However, if we are not careful, that reflection can seem to be much more about us than about them. Desiring to honor the memory of the other person should be the goal, especially when that’s what inspired us in the beginning.
To some extent, all art is selfish. What I mean is, artists create art about how they see the world, art that is related to their own experience of the world. Even when songwriters take on a different personality to write a song or when painters abstract their narratives beyond recognition, the inspiration comes from their own personal experiences and emotions. I might even suggest that when these stories are told, the artists may mix and intentionally confuse their identities with others to create a more interesting narrative. On The Road wasn’t just about how cool Dean Moriarty was. The portrait of Dr. Gachet was probably more about Van Gogh than the good doctor.
Tom was the music minister in the church that I grew up attending. He and his family joined that church when I was young and they were still there when I moved on some twenty or so years later. His oldest daughter was about my age and we were good friends. His youngest daughter ended up being in classes I taught for 7 or 8 years. He and his wife were fixtures. As the music guy, Tom was in front of us all the time. He led the worship services morning and night and he did so with much personality and life. He was very funny. He had the kind of face that was stern when relaxed but when he smiled (and he smiled very often) he smiled with his entire face. This had the effect of the sun breaking through an overcast sky.
Believe it or not, I was ordained as a deacon in that church many years ago in a service that is traditionally very serious and mature. Perhaps not as surprising, my service was a little more fun and a little less serious. At the end of the service church members lined up to shake my hand and say kind words to me. Tom came up with his face as serious as I’d ever seen it. He shook my hand firmly and looked straight through my eyes and said, “Don’t ever let them make you grow up.”
Such great advice from a great man. But now I’m left wondering if that story says as much about me as it does about him.