This morning I’d like to talk about a conversation, a movie, and an obituary, all of which were a part of my day last Friday.
First, the conversation: I happened to bump into a UCC dad Friday morning at a coffee shop downtown, and as I nursed a Grande Pike, he talked quite openly about his son. Perhaps it was because it was an impromptu chat, or maybe it was because we were off campus, but for whatever reason, he spoke freely about his son’s experiences: the good, the bad, and the ugly of high school life. One thing seemed particularly important to him, and he ended our conversation by saying, “I’d be lying if I said my son and his friends were always perfect. They’re not. But the one thing I do know is that they are there for each other. If they are out socially and someone is doing something stupid, someone will confront him. They really do look out for one another.”
Later that day I saw the film “Unbroken.” Some of you may have seen the movie or read Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling novel. For those of you who haven’t, it’s the story of an extraordinary man, Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner, (he competed in the 1936 Olympics) who becomes a soldier and eventually a prisoner of war during World War 2. As the title suggests, Louis has an incredible capacity for endurance. Whether he is floating in a dingy for a mind-numbing, spirit-sapping 47 days of sharks and storms, or being brutally beaten by an almost demonic prison guard, Louis remains a paragon of resiliency. He is the man who will not break.
After watching Angelina Jolie’s movie, you can’t help but wonder about the source of Zamperini’s remarkable inner strength. There are some hints. Louis had, for one thing, a strong religious faith that sustained him during his time of trials. But there was something else that kept him going, too.
Early in the film, we see that Louis was no angel; as an early adolescent, he was caught drinking and stealing. (Were he a UCC student today, he might well be spending some time with Mr. Williams!) One day, though, his older brother, Pete, steps in and changes the course of Louis’ life. Pete sees something in Louis that Louis does not recognize in himself. Louis has a gift. He can run.
Pete not only affirms his younger brother’s athletic promise, but he also becomes his de facto trainer, and he is there to cheer him on, as Louis becomes a track star in high school, in university, and eventually at the Berlin Olympic Games.
Friday, I also happened to come across the obituary of Mario Cuomo, the former governor of the state of New York, the man who could have been — and some might argue should have been — president. Cuomo had the Democratic nomination for the asking in 1992, but he decided not to pursue the position because he wrongly believed the incumbent, George H. W. Bush, was unbeatable after liberating Kuwait. I say “wrongly” because a brash upstart from Arkansas upended Bush ‘41 in the general election that year, and Mario Cuomo, the so-called “Hamlet on the Hudson” because of his tendency to deliberate, had to spend the rest of his life wondering “What if?”
In 1984, I heard Mario Cuomo deliver a graduation speech at my alma mater, and his words still resonate 30 years later. At the time it felt like he was talking directly to me when he said,
“…This world of ours … is a threatened place, bleeding and broken, in pain. Not for all, however. For some inscrutable reason there are those of us who always seem in this great game of life to fall on the safe squares. To escape the real tragedies. And many of you, I’m sure, will be among the lucky players.
You’ve been given an education that says it’s not enough to have a skill; not enough to have read all the good books, even all the great books; not enough to know all the important facts or mouth all the nice humanitarian sentiments that liberal arts graduates are supposed to memorize…. This place (college) was justified because it had something special to say, and what it had to say was that you are supposed to love openly, freely, absolutely with all of your heart and all of your will, not because it’s a nice thing to do and it will help you to keep your sanity, but because your souls are at stake, because without that love we will perish…”
This is pretty lofty stuff, even for a politician, but on Friday I found myself thinking about Cuomo’s words, and about UCC boys’ standing up for one another, and about Pete Zamperini’s looking out for his kid brother.
The common thread is a fundamental question: What do we owe one another? What are our mutual obligations? For instance, when a classmate starts to go over the edge at a party, what are we supposed to do? When a not yet charming lad stumbles socially in front of his peers, how do we help him out? If there is someone whose name we don’t know, and he or she seems to be in vulnerable situation on a Saturday night, what are we called to do?
And what are our obligations to the Louis Zamperini’s who are hidden in plain sight among us right here in Laidlaw Hall this Tuesday morning? Their gifts may not involve athletic potential, but there are boys in this room who roll through these halls for the most part unseen and unrecognized; the real pity is that they don’t see or recognize their own goodness, their own talents. What do we owe these guys? What role might we play in helping them through the sharks and storms of high school life?
As we start this New Year together, let’s heed Mario Cuomo’s advice. Let’s be there for one another. Let’s affirm the goodness and talents – not just for those on Lonsdale Road –but for others, and especially for those who have landed on life’s less than lucky squares.