At the first international student orientation at Yale University, I met a student from Kenya who had graduated from Hampshire College that May, and was enrolled as a PhD student in Anthropology. We became friends and would talk about any and all things. One Friday afternoon, I received a text message inquiring if I could do a favor. "What kind of favor?" I asked.
"I have some belongings at Hampshire College, and would appreciate it if you could drive me up there to pick them up."
"Sure, why not?" was my response, as I hadn’t been to Massachusetts before and I thought that it would be exciting to drive up there.
We headed to Amherst the next morning, and after loading all the belongings in my car, we decided to tour the area - remember, this was my first visit to the state of Massachusetts. The reason I tell this story is that I simply couldn’t believe the sheer beauty of the autumn leaves, some of which covered the trees and some of which covered the landscape. I was completely enthralled.
If I had been there a few weeks earlier, I wonder if I wouldn’t have encountered such beauty, such grace - creation can be graceful, and it can be beautiful. "Life is beautiful," I said to myself as we walked around Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Indeed, leaves do change color. And that was the first time that I had seen anything like it - it was the first time I beheld creation in this enthralling beauty. It is this same beauty that I see in you, and it is this beauty that provides me with more than enough hope to say "YES" to life. I say yes to life in all circumstances; not that there aren't rough patches - there are countless of them - but we say "YES" to life in spite of them.
I write today’s piece with a dear friend in mind and, in fact, in his honor. It is my prayer that he lives long enough to read it. But even if he doesn’t get to read it himself, I hope that someone will read it to him or read it for him. It has been a rough few days for him, and hearing him make reference to leaves reminded me of the words of Jesus in Matthew:
“And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”
This text spills out an incredible amount of hope - hope in the one person with whom we can lay our burdens. And if we trust this person to assume our burdens, hold on to those burdens, and carry them, as well, why would we worry if those beautiful leaves change color and still light up our world?
One of my favorite authors is Viktor Frankl. Frankl believed he survived the holocaust by a combination of chance, choice, and character. But he lost his mother, father, and brother to mass murder in the concentration camps. In spite of the horrific nature of the holocaust, Frankl still believed in human dignity. He believed in the fact that in spite of the often colorless nature of leaves, there is yet meaning to life.
What amazes me about Frankl is his absolute dedication to the belief in life’s meaning. There is meaning to life and that meaning is derived by the beautiful responsibility we place on ourselves. Life has never been about one thing, good or bad. To focus on one thing is to miss the point of life. The overall beauty of life lies in its complexities - which, ironically, provide the meaning we seek.
If you pay close attention to life itself, you can trace the markings of the divine over all of life. The truth is that it doesn’t have to be pretty to feel divine presence nor does it have to be horrendous to feel that divine presence. In all situations, we can feel that abiding presence.
That is why Frankl, in spite of the horror of the holocaust, couldn’t give up on life, the joy of being alive, or the divine. Life is full of meaning - that is why we still say "YES" to life, in spite of it. Life is full of meaning, and that is why a tiny little light in the midst of life’s darkness still inspires hope.
In one of his books, “Yes to Life,” Frankl wrote these beautiful words:
“Death is a meaningful part of life, just like human suffering. Both do not rob the existence of human beings of meaning but make it meaningful in the first place. Thus, it is precisely the uniqueness of our existence in the world, the irretrievability of our lifetime, the irrevocability of everything with which we fill it — or leave unfulfilled — that gives our existence significance. But it is not only the uniqueness of an individual life as a whole that gives it importance, it is also the uniqueness of every day, every hour, every moment that represents something that loads our existence with the weight of a terrible and yet so beautiful responsibility!”
What beautiful responsibility do you have?
I held his hand this morning, and as I listened to all the beautiful stories he’s made with his family, I learned that one of his favorite quotes is “It’s gonna be all right.” Yes, it will be all right, because we choose to say "YES" to life, in spite of the color of the leaves. We say "YES," in spite of this.
Leaves grow. Leaves fade before they fall. Leaves may not even fade before they fall, but all leaves fall, nonetheless. In spite of that, we still grow and nurture trees that make beautiful leaves. The fact that the leaves fall does not stop us, and life's darkness shouldn't stop us either.
From this day, every time I see a leaf, be it on a tree, falling from a tree, or on the ground, whether it is green or has changed color, I will remember you, Charlie. You are always a beautiful leaf.