In 2011, my good friend, Chris Nuss, was killed in a fatal car accident. He was twenty-two years old. Sixteen-year-old James Henry was ejected from the same car and killed as well. It hurt. Two years ago this week, I cried.
That same week, a close family friend from the time I was born, Pastor Norm Livingston, died. I wept.
Later on in the year, my Aunt Mary, someone who was there for me my entire life and whom I loved dearly, died from health complications. I sang at her funeral and barely made it through the first verse of her favorite song before I couldn't go on any longer. I grieved deeply.
Not even six months later I went to my Uncle Gary's house and watched him die. When my grandpa's lip quivered from sadness, I couldn't stop the tears from coming into my own eyes.
Within twenty-four hours my own pastor, Doris Schwartz, finished her battle with cancer and died. That was a hard week.
Then, just a few months later, one of the best guys I have ever known, been inspired by, and come to love dearly, Aaron Michael Cox, died at the age of 22. I still get emotional thinking that I'll never see him again. That was a hard month.
Last week I sang at my great-grandmother's funeral. There were no tears in my eyes. I knew where she was.
Seven people. Seven names. Seven loved ones.
Chris, Norm, Mary, Gary, Doris, Aaron, Genieva.
Last night I spent some time with my friend in the hospital. She has terrible asthma — not the kind of asthma that allows you to take an inhaler and get on with your day. This is the kind of asthma that closes up her lungs for days on end and forces her to be hooked up to a machine to breathe normally. I'm not mentioning her because I think she'll make #8 on that list above, but because the time I spent with her last night really taught me some valuable lessons. Lessons that I wish I had known the last two years as seven people whom I loved were taken from this world.
When I think about the two disasters that have occurred this week — first the Boston Marathon bombings, and then the West, Texas plant explosion — I am drawn back to the lessons I’ve been learning from my friend.
At one point I looked at her, after sitting in silence for a while, and apologized for not having much to say or knowing what to say in the moment. She picked up her pen and paper, because she couldn’t speak, and wrote down for me, “Just you being able to come here and sit with me is encouraging.”
My heart jumped into my throat. Later, as I tried to speak encouraging words to her and tears filled her eyes, I knew I was doing the right thing. She needed someone, and I was so happy to have been given the opportunity to be that someone for her.
In the last two years there have been seven people in my life who died. Seven people I hadn’t taken much time to talk with in the weeks and months leading up to that day. Yeah, I’d emailed my friend Aaron, called Chris, seen my Uncle Gary and Pastor Doris, but I hadn’t really taken the time to show them how much they meant to me. Hadn’t really sat down with them and told them I loved them and that I was grateful for what they had taught me.
I don’t grieve over the lost opportunities; that attitude just keeps my mind in the past and not on what the present is giving me. I seek the next opportunity to honor those seven people. Opportunities that are popping up every single day.
There are people now, in Boston, Massachusetts and West, Texas, who are struggling. People I can’t possibly go meet or hug or listen to or grieve with.
But there are seven billion of us in this world. Seven billion names. Seven billion people connected by the common ability to help each other and show each other compassion in times of need. Seven billion runners going in the same direction towards the finish line.
Though I can’t be in those two cities to encourage the portion of the seven billion people who are there and injured, I can encourage the fraction of seven billion people reading this now to go and do what is possible. I can encourage my friend in the hospital and show her love so that when she gets better she can do the same for someone else. I can encourage you to take some time out of your busy day to go say “Hello” to someone you’d forgotten to catch up with. They might need that more than anything in the world right now.
You never know when it will be the last opportunity to do so.
You never know if the encouragement you give someone today will help them encourage someone else tomorrow.
You never know when the next fire, cancer diagnosis, car accident, or terrorist bomb will affect some of the people in your own world.
There are seven billion runners in the race of life, trying to experience as many fleeting moments of joy as they can between the start and finish lines. Don’t let someone you care for deeply stop, even for a moment, and struggle alone.
Sometimes we just need a hand to get back up again. Sometimes a word of encouragement to tell us to keep going. Sometimes a back to climb and be carried on.
In these bodies we will live,
In these bodies we will die.
The way you invest your love,
You invest your life.
— Mumford and Sons, “Awake my Soul”
We can’t do everything alone. We can’t do anything at all when we think that we’re alone. (That’s partially why some depressed people stay depressed.)
If you’re alone and running, it’s not a race and you can’t win it. If you’re alone running the race and you cross the finish line alone, you came in last place even as you came in first. If you’re running alone, there’s no one with whom to celebrate at the finish line. If you’re running alone and a nearby explosion causes you to fall, there won’t be anyone else around to help pick you up.
Good thing there’s actually 7 billion other people running with you.