A Lesson 50 Years in the Making: Kindness Endures

This past weekend, my wife and I attended my high school reunion. Fifty years turns out to be enough time to peel away the conceit of high school students, revealing who was hiding behind the youthful bravado of long ago. It’s like what was said about Michelangelo when he carved the “Prisoners” out of Carrara marble: “He didn’t create. He revealed. He liberated. He saw a figure inside the marble. His job was to chip away the excess.”

At my reunion, half a century had chipped away the excesses of adolescence. Familiar cliques of athletes, cheerleaders, nerds, rebels and the insecure had all but disappeared, freeing their inner “prisoners” and allowing individuals to become who they really had been all along. As we reconnected after respective lifetimes of experience with varying degrees of failure and success, disappointment and triumph, the notion of cliques and the need to judge seemed silly.

I tried to single out classmates who had been particularly awkward in school. One revealed to me that in spite of an inclination to stay home this time because “nobody cares about me,” she’d decided to come to the reunion nonetheless. When I told her I was happy she was there, she became emotional. As seniors now – some with canes, and one or two in wheelchairs – we all were dealing with the reality that life is short and that caring about each other matters more than we’d realized.

I’d happened across a podcast immediately prior to the reunion that helped me see it through new eyes. I wasn’t able to get the podcast out of my mind during the whole weekend. It was a TED talk given in August by Martin Pistorius (no relation to Oscar Pistorius) through a speech synthesizer. He told of coming down with a “brain infection” at 12 and spending the next 13 years of his life unable to move or to speak, seemingly devoid of intelligence and feelings — imprisoned in his body without any apparent way to communicate.

His parents were told he only had a short time to live and that they should just try to make him comfortable. But when days became years of getting up every two hours to turn Pistorius over and care for his physical needs, his mother — in a moment of despair — shocked him by exclaiming that she wished he were dead. At the same time, when other caretakers weren’t ignoring him entirely, they made rude comments, sexually abused him, and treated him as if he weren’t human.

The worthlessness, anguish and terror Pistorius felt were predictably overwhelming. But at one low point, a random stranger walked past and smiled at him. “This fleeting moment of human compassion,” Pistorius now remembers, “transformed how I was feeling, making me want to keep going.”

When speech synthesis developed to the point that he (like Stephen Hawking) could communicate by using his eyes, people found he was not only alive mentally, but that he was a bright, thoughtful human being. Later, he fell in love with, and married, a caregiver. As he ended his TED talk, limited only by the synthetic voice that could neither whisper nor show emotion, he paused for effect and asked members of the audience to assume the greatest warmth they could conjure as his electronic voice said, simply, “Thank you.”

It was the warmth of that expression that made me realize that some of my classmates had felt trapped in their adolescent insecurities, sealed off from the world without a voice. I figured this was my chance to learn what they had wanted to say in the distant past. I found that, with the passage of time, most of my alienated classmates had indeed discovered their voices. It was a truly moving experience – one that I’ll take back to my own life with students and employees, friends and family.

As I flew back from where I’d grown up, my thoughts turned to my mother, who I never heard express an ill thought or criticism about anyone. At the time, I figured she just wasn’t very discerning. But I came away from the weekend concluding that unwavering decency defined her. She never gave up on all the Martins in her life. And I, along with many others, have been the rich beneficiaries of her kindness. Thank you, Mom.

Reunions can be a time for nostalgia. They can also reward us with newfound perspective on how to live one’s life going forward.

By Joel Peterson