We don’t always get to choose the path we will walk in life, but we do get to choose how we walk that path. There is a saying, “It’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years that really matter.”
I begin this blog entry with the profound quote above – which I recently read in a eulogy for my fraternity brother Kevin Ballantine, who just last Sunday lost his exhausting, three-year battle with leukemia, at the all-too-young age of twenty-three – because they are words that truly I am trying to live by each and every day. The quotation was never more applicable when describing Kevin’s most unfortunate circumstances; ever the most persistent of optimists, Kevin was – as described by innumerable friends, relatives and casual acquaintances – the personification of positive energy, even when faced with the most unfathomably difficult challenges. Never once did he lament the health injustices bestowed upon him or let them defeat his uplifting spirit; instead, he channeled his energies toward relentlessly fighting the good fight against the disease, all the while looking for opportunities to help and serve others with his sharp skill sets and astute mind.
Why Kevin had to leave us on this physical world so soon in life is a heartbreaking reality that many, myself included, have painfully struggled to comprehend and accept since his passing. Whether or not you believe that everything in this life happens for a reason, or that some guiding force above us exists, nobody can say that Kevin’s recent passing is anything but profoundly saddening. That said, while we all find ways to face this tremendous tidal wave of grief, there are many positives to take from, and opportunities to carry on, Kevin’s pervasive legacy as the beacon of hope and optimism.
I did not personally know Kevin well. Despite our shared fraternal bond and projected graduation year, Kevin’s illness kept him away from both the Delta Phi brotherhood and Cornell University campus for significant chunks of time, resulting in a relationship that was defined more by distant anecdotes rather than in-person interactions. Even still, over the past six months or so, I have closely followed Kevin and his family’s journey – vis a vie a CarePages blog that his courageous mother Diane ever so meticulously managed – and have grown to learn more about Kevin as a person than I had ever gleaned as an undergraduate. What I extracted about Kevin has already been iterated above and by countless others; however, I personally have found profound resonance in Kevin’s beliefs and perspectives, as they are perfectly in synch with life’s simplest truth:
An insurmountable object, emotion, or thought is nothing more than our reluctance to take up the challenge of trying to understand it.
Until recently, I had little to no understanding about what this simple truth was, let alone how to incorporate it into my daily life. Ever the opinionated, high-strung contrarian, I spent almost my entire Cornell Hotel School experience in a self-centered, stressed-out bubble, blissfully unaware of how I was perceived by my peers or how my insistent attitudes rubbed many people the wrong way. In my mind, if someone disagreed with my viewpoints or life priorities, they were both resolutely wrong and that it was my job to convince them that my perspectives were the only right ones. These perspectives, too, were clouded by periods of pessimism and snap-judgments that, in hindsight, were egregiously misinformed and a total waste of my mental energies.
But this was the status quo, and I had little intention on changing the reality. My overconfident, narcissistic attitudes were only magnified once I graduated from Cornell and prepared to embark on a brand new and, on paper at least, very exciting journey – to take on the role as Manager of Internet Marketing for the luxurious Fairmont Southampton Resort, and to live full-time in blissful Bermuda. I didn’t realize it then, but the opportunity would, in the end, be an experience that led to tremendous personal unhappiness and, as a result, have pervasively detrimental effects on both my physical and mental health. For the sake of brevity, I will not go into the specific struggles I endured because of this “dream job” – that said, this extended crisis phase stripped me of nearly all the interpersonal faculties I believed I once possessed, plaguing me with an egregiously debilitating sense of self-loathing and doubt.
The happy ending here is that, in spite of these dark times and struggles I had to endure, they have made me a lot stronger and have – just as Kevin had known for so many – clued me in on what is really important in life. By coming out of this very difficult summer of crises, I have ascertained a tremendous sense of self-awareness, a possession that has been offered so much utility in my ongoing attempt to shift my mindset paradigm from pessimist to optimist. This perspective change is a journey – one certainly that does not happen overnight – and is not one that you can force or manufacture. Instead, it is a gradual, subtle process that is carried out on a daily basis, and informs almost every one of your life decisions. With a more sanguine outlook, the tasks of respectfully dealing with people that just don’t share your belief systems or, more importantly, finding ways to share common ground with even the most antagonistic of thinkers, are far less arduous than when thinking misanthropically. Acceptance of others’ differences, and trying your absolute best to make these divergences relationship strengths, is an enormously enlightening idea that Kevin always embraced, and that I am steadily coming around to.
If there is anything that can be learned through Kevin’s story, it is this: life is far too short to worry about, or waste energy, trying to change persistently pessimistic thinkers. Instead, spend your energy being grounded in reality by looking at all the positive things that go on in your daily life, and build off of those; what will result from this is so much more desirable for your entire physical and mental being. As Kevin ever so wisely once said,
Remember that life is fleeting, and there are more important things than grudges or ill wishes. Underneath our different skin colors, yarmulkes, head scarves, or crucifix necklaces, we’re still the same people. We still want the same thing – for people to be nice to us. All I ask of those who want to help me is this – treat your strangers as you would your best friends… We are all forced to share the same planet, like it or not. And we are ALL responsible for that planet, for the sake of ourselves and our children.
Now those are words to live by. Kevin, you will be dearly missed, but I will personally do my best to live your message of positivity and open-mindedness on a daily basis. I thank you for teaching me this, and know that your legacy will live forever.