“I’d like to tell you about a guy I know, a friend of mine. His name is Brian Piccolo. And he has the heart of a giant, and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent – cancer. He has a mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the world ‘courage,’ 24 hours a day, every day of his life. You flatter me by giving me this award. But I say to you here now Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who deserves to receive the George S. Halas Award. It’s mine tonight, but Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow. I love Brian Piccolo and I’d like all of you to love him too. And tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”
Gale Sayers’ Acceptance Address for the George S. Halas Courage Award
At one time or another all of us likely have asked ourselves the question: “Why do ‘bad’ things happen to good people?” Some ask it more than others. I would be one of those people. Sometimes the question crops up in the wake of the sudden and premature death of a celebrity or sports figure, who seemingly was at the height of their career and full of life. Lou Gehrig, Roberto Clemente, Brian Piccolo, Jim Valvano, Princess Diana and Steve Jobs are just a few examples in my lifetime that immediately come to mind. Other times, the question is raised in the aftermath of the death of prominent politicians, activists, public figures and innocents whose lives have been cut short by senseless acts of violence and hatred. John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., the children, teachers and administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary, the victims of 9/11 and of the recent Boston Marathon bombing, those gunned down at Columbine, the Washington Navy Yard and Fort Hood, etc. certainly would fall into that category. But the question is by no means limited to deaths, nor is it restricted to those who happen to enjoy celebrity or other public figure status. No, it’s one that either has or will touch all of our lives in very personal, mostly non-public ways.
Maybe the question will arise amidst the ruins of a failed marriage or other committed relationship. Maybe it has or will have its roots in the suffering that we or a loved one, especially a parent, spouse or child have endured or are enduring in battling a chronic or life-threatening illness. Maybe its source is having stood at the precipice of the realization of a lifelong dream only to have it suddenly cut short or interrupted, by an unexpected change in life circumstance. Maybe our wondering stems from the loss of a job or a business that we dedicated our entire working life to when we least expect and can least afford the financial consequences that inevitably come with it. Maybe for us it is a death, albeit of a very personal “celebrity” in our lives – a spouse, a parent, a child, a close friend or a mentor. Maybe it is posed through our tears as we stand amid the rubble that once was our home, our life, wiped out in an instant by some form of natural disaster. But, while the precipitating event is (or will be) different and unique to each of us, the question asked is always the same: Why? Why me? Why my loved one? Why do “bad” things happen to good people?
The obvious answer, of course, though highly unsatisfactory, is that “bad” things happen to everyone – good and bad. Like it or not, death and the myriad of other circumstances outlined above don’t discriminate based on the fundamental “goodness” of their recipients or their significance in our public or private lives. On last Saturday’s walk, however, it occurred to me that, while we may not ever be able to fully understand the “why” of it, more often than not even the “darkest” of events ultimately give “birth” to a “knowing heart” that, in turn and in time, becomes a source of light and hope for the world. Maybe that’s part of the why – the answer I’ve been searching for all these years. Interestingly, it’s a concept that, without realizing it, I was close to stumbling upon in formulating the text for the back cover of my book when I wrote: “If we are willing to take a step back and reflect on the matters of the heart that invariably surround events [that challenge us to our core], they can lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves, of those we love [and, if we pay close enough attention, to what it means to be fully human].” But now I see it much more clearly.
I have my dear friend, Alison Smela to thank for this critical realization – and so much more. She has been in the darkest of dark places in her life, not once, but twice – first as the result of a lifelong struggle with alcoholism and concurrently in the death grip of anorexia. Those familiar with the insidiousness and power of those two diseases will appreciate how much strength and courage it takes to meet them head-on and then resolve to place them firmly in the rearview mirror of your life. You likely also would not begrudge Alison (and those who love her) a few: “Why is this happening to me/her of all of the people in the world?” But, here’s the thing: While I’m certain those thoughts crept into her mind a time or two (perhaps even two hundred!) my sense, as I’ve grown to know Alison through her writings is that the “why” didn’t stay there very long. She “got it” long before I did. Somehow she knew that “why?” is not the question any of us should be asking. Instead, the questions we should be asking, particularly in the midst of our or our loved ones’ adversity, are: “What am I supposed to be learning here?” and “How can I share the light of that knowledge to bring hope and healing to someone else?” One day, you’ll get a chance to know this remarkable woman by reading the book she’s writing.
For now, you’ll just have to take my word for it: The world is a better place because of her knowing heart!