Every summer for the past seventeen years, I’ve spent three weeks working with the students at the West Virginia Governor’s Honors Academy, an intensive, three-week residential program for approximately two-hundred rising high school seniors from throughout the state.
This past summer, each of the faculty were asked to deliver a five-minute “rumination” related to the Academy’s theme – “The Life in Common” – to the students during one of our daily morning meetings. This was mine (with some minor editing to remove a handful of topical references that wouldn’t make sense to anyone outside of the program).
A while back, near the end of GHA one year, I had a rotten day. I know rotten’s not an academic word, but it’s effective. Shakespeare even uses it in Hamlet.
When I woke up that morning, I felt rotten. I was tentative. I was confused. I was unsure of myself. And I knew, as soon as I got out of bed and my feet hit the floor, that I was thinking way too much, just like Hamlet.
All day long, hour after hour, I kept thinking thought more and more, and by the end of the day, it felt like I’d completely lost myself – like I was trapped inside my head, just like Hamlet.
Everything inside me felt decayed. Rotten.
Most nights at GHA, when the weather’s decent and I have some time, I go outside and walk. I wait until the sun goes down and the stars are starting to come out. I put on my headphones and turn up the volume, and I let everything else fade away. I usually walk for about half an hour or forty-five minutes, and by the time I’m done, it’s like I’ve gotten rid of everything that’s rotten.
I walked almost two hours that night. I walked until my shirt was soaked with sweat, the muscles in my legs were burning, and the music blurred to nothing more than background noise, and I stopped hearing anything at all. It didn’t help. I still felt trapped inside my head. I was frustrated. I felt isolated. I was angry with myself.
Rotten. Just plain rotten.
Later that night, sometime after midnight, there was a knock at my door. It was my roommate, checking to be sure I’d gotten back all right. He cracked the door, stood outside my room, and talked to me for about thirty seconds. What he said isn’t important to the story. All you really need to know is that it was exactly what I needed to hear that night.
Thirty seconds. It doesn’t sound like much. I guess it wasn’t, in a lot of ways. In a lot of ways, it was only half a minute and a simple act of kindness. He probably doesn’t even remember it.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
That night, thirty seconds meant the world to me, because they let me finally let myself be vulnerable. I finally stopped thinking. I finally stopped feeling lost inside my head. I finally let everything rotten that was knotted up inside of me come pouring out.
I never thanked him. I never let him know how much those thirty seconds meant to me. Whenever something – or someone – means a lot to me, it’s really hard for me to say it, especially to them. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I feel inadequate, I lose my nerve, and I get totally tongue-tied. Even now, I’m not sure that I could look him in the eye and tell him.
I like to think he knew somehow. I hope he knew. I hope he knows.
Sometime, you’re going to do something – or say something – that means the world to someone, and you aren’t going to have any idea how much it means to them. That doesn’t mean it matters any less. Sometime, someone’s going to do something – or say something – that means the world to you, and you won’t know where to find the words to let them know. That doesn’t mean it matters any less.
I don’t expect you to remember any of this, because, really, it’s just a story about thirty seconds. I’m not even sure that it makes sense. But if you remember anything, remember this: Be good to one another, because whether we acknowledge it or not, love is never wrong.
In case you’re wondering, I finally did thank him the day after I gave this talk to the students.