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  • Selva Lawler

#17 - My Friend Kevin and the Path of Service He Walked

“Sh!+, we forgot Kevin!”

No, I’m not referencing the movie Home Alone. Those were the words I would occasionally say when, during freshmen year of college, I forgot to tell my friend Kevin that a group of friends and I were leaving for dinner. Whenever I would next see him, his visible irritation and frustration surfaced. He would be fuming. "You forgot me again!", Kevin would say. I didn't have any meritorious defense, and I felt awful. He was incapable of forgetting any kind of occasion and had a difficult time realizing that others weren't nearly as conscientious as he was. He cherished the idea of sharing and celebrating a meal at the end of the day and catching up with his friends. Forgetting to grab him before dinner was a clear violation of his code. In his view, when we forgot to round him up before dinner, the earth stopped spinning on its axis.

The other night, I was overly focused on all things myself, and even though it was about really trivial things, it got exhausting. It reminded me of someone on the complete other end of the spectrum, who so thoroughly was of service to others. I immediately thought of my friend Kevin, who tragically passed away several years ago after an extremely sudden bout with an aggressive form of leukemia. There's something about this time of year that makes me think about him more than I usually do. I can't put my finger on why that is. 

Not that it wouldn't have been surprising for anyone his age to pass away, but it was truly shocking for a human being who led such a focused, monastic lifestyle - never smoked, didn't really drink, and had no vices whatsoever, other than perhaps working and studying way too much.

There are times where we all feel like we’re unlucky, snakebitten, or that we can’t catch a break. We do, however, have to acknowledge that we get unmerited benefits from the universe that we may not deserve. I definitely received that in a great friend like Kevin.

I’m a sucker for dualism, and I love how Radnor High School graduate David Brooks and New York Times op-ed columnist writes about the two sides of our nature: our resume virtues and our eulogy virtues. Brooks contends that the resume virtues are the skills that a person brings to the marketplace; essentially, how well has she or he done at conquering the world? The eulogy virtues are the internal ones that are talked about at our funeral - whether a person was honest, loyal, selfless, or courageous. According to Brooks, although we know the eulogy traits are far more important, most of us spend considerably more time on the skills and tactics we need to acquire resume virtues and career success than the qualities we need to radiate our inner light.

Kevin was a man of such noble and praiseworthy character and virtue that he seemingly sprung up from a bygone era. His story seems more fittingly read in a biography about someone at the turn of the 20th century. If I described him to you, and told you that he was born in the 80s, the 1880s would make much more sense than the 1980s because of his fierce spirit of rectitude.

I will always remember what an exceedingly and unusually honest person Kevin was. Kevin was utterly incapable of dishonesty. The thought would be akin to violence in his view, and he was committed to the ethic of never lying. He was the human embodiment of being faithful to one’s word, with flawless execution. Although I’m nowhere near his mastery, I’ve found how immensely clarifying it is to simply improve in this facet of life.

The significance of keeping promises and the ethics of honesty were not lost on him. I never roomed with him, but he once announced to his roommates after one of them wasn't telling him the total truth that, “There shall be no lying in this quad.” At the time, it was bizarre and even piss-your-pants comical to me to think a statement like that (almost like it was plucked from the Old Testament) would emanate from the lips of a 19-year-old college kid, but it clearly stuck with me.

Diogenes the Cynic perpetually traveled around the sunlit streets of Athens, lantern in hand, in search of an honest man. Diogenes looked for that honest man although claimed to have never found one. He contended that he only encountered rascals and scoundrels. All Diogenes needed to do was bump into Kevin and that would've stopped his little philosophical gag dead in his tracks.

Even when it came to immaterial or inconsequent things, Kevin honored his word. We were playing a drinking game my senior year of college one evening, and Kevin wound up losing and had to continuously drink for an outrageously long fourteen seconds. Everyone I know, including myself, would've cut it short or pretended to drink for at least part of the time. Even though Kevin wasn't a partygoing drinker at all, he monitored his watch while drinking for every bit of those fourteen seconds, and likely longer.

Kevin also refused to ever talk negatively about another human being. Gossip was abhorrent to his nature. In Judaism, gossip and slander are considered extremely serious sins. The Talmud dictates that "evil gossip kills three: the one who says it, the one who listens, and the subject of the gossip." But who really doesn't talk trash about others? Well, Kevin, for one. Every word out of his mouth about others presumed the absolute best about them. He was one of the very few people I have ever met that was wired this way, and I’ve consciously started following his excellent example, even if my follow-through leaves quite a bit to be desired.

Brooks recently had a TED Talk in which he mentions how it's critical that we have people in society who heed a calling higher than ourselves. Brooks talks about how there are two different life mindsets, stating, "The first mountain mindset is about individual happiness and career success. And it's a good mindset, I have nothing against it. But we're in a national valley because we don't have the other mindset to balance it. We no longer feel good about ourselves as a people, we've lost our defining faith in our future, we don't see each other deeply, we don't treat each other as well. And we need a lot of changes. We need an economic change and environmental change. But we also need a cultural and relational revolution."

We’re overly self-oriented. It’s a bug in the machine and how we’re programmed. We often seek short term pleasure (like being popular or making fun of someone who isn't like us) over a long term virtue (like being faithful to our friends). We are inherently selfish. In that selfishness, we look out into this vast blue marble from our own vantage point. From a biological standpoint, it’s hard not to feel that we are the absolute center of the universe. As David Foster Wallace concludes, "It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real." Kevin wouldn’t subscribe to a Buddhist view that the self is a total illusion, but his example of service and virtue are highly instructive.

As Brooks eloquently writes, “Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

I appreciate the efforts - and they were not halfhearted efforts, they were maximum all-in efforts - Kevin exerted to earnestly do his best to find a place where his mission, vocation, and passions would be fulfilled and where he could make an impact on humanity and the world. A summa cum laude grad in pre-med from a prestigious, top-20 ranked national university, he certainly could have gone to any med school in the country and excelled at the very highest levels of the medical profession. Instead, he participated in a teaching program in Massachusetts, subsequently entered the seminary for several years, left seminary life, and finally found a home teaching at a Catholic high school in his hometown of Chicago. He was deeply armed with a sense of mission, and although he had the heart of a lion, at times he had difficulty finding his North Star. I can relate. As one of my college friends astutely noted, Kevin certainly “had his moments of frustration and questioning about his path, but ultimately he found a place where his passion and devotion made an impact on young people. He sought to find a path in which he could be of service to others both professionally and in his personal life.”

The people on a road like Kevin’s see the trying moments in life as pieces of a larger narrative. I obviously don’t know what was completely going on in his head, but I suspect that he was not really living for happiness or trying to maximize his enjoyment by some textbook definition or by how much pleasure he derived from something. It’s a daunting task to try and make the world a better place, but I believe that Kevin felt valued and found meaning when he was actively being part of the solution in a struggle on behalf of a noble idea, rather than continue being part of the problem. He didn’t build his life on being more wealthy or more popular than others - both of which would have been far easier for him to accomplish - but on contributing to a cause greater than himself.

Helping someone move is undoubtedly not a resume virtue. When it comes to helping somebody move, we’ve all heard some incredibly lame excuses and outright falsehoods about why people can’t assist. Kevin was the exact opposite. Unsolicitedly, Kevin overheard my college roommate was moving and helped him move by volunteering himself without being asked. Kevin took a train from out of town and subsequently walked three miles through sweltering summer heat/humidity and through several rather rough neighborhoods to meet my roommate. In true Kevin fashion, he would not permit my friend to pay for an Uber or transportation of any kind.

On that trip, Kevin imparted some sage wisdom, and as my college roommate described it, “one topic was his point that life in general and marriage in particular are not always meant to be easy.” Kevin knew my friend was about to get married and he wanted him “to understand that marriage is as much about the effort and work you put in to fix problems as it is about the easy times.” Kevin implored my friend to respond with great effort during hard times. As my friend summed up, “His opinion (which is probably right) is that too many people give up on life and marriage because they think it should be easy.”

Kevin was a man of obligation. I can guarantee that he was one of the hardest working high school teachers who ever drew a breath. He would tell me how he would typically get up in the 4 o'clock hour and work past 10 at night. He worked hard every weekend. He frequently mentioned to me that he knew that he spent far too much time working. And yet, that didn’t preclude him from remembering to schedule time for his friends. Quite the opposite. He was extremely regimented in that arena.

Kevin deeply valued friendship. He was always the far better man than I when it came to staying in touch. He was nothing if not organized. Whenever we would speak, he would always religiously, without fail, call me exactly three months later on a quarterly basis. Although I never asked him, nor actually saw him do this, I was positive that he would pencil in a future meeting in his calendar. Just like one might calendar an important business meeting or a Doctor’s appointment, he would prioritize staying in touch to a supreme degree. It might seem absurd at first, but it’s a practice I’ve now done, albeit not with Kevin’s 100% success rate.

Kevin also was the equipment manager for his high school football team. I think it would be a phenomenal experience to coach middle school or high school sports, and to each her or his own, I reckon, but I would have absolutely no interest in being an equipment manager for little to no pay. And yet, this role suited Kevin perfectly. If Kevin was in charge of the equipment, it would be preordained that every uniform, mouthguard, and piece of athletic tape was accounted for and inventoried to perfection.

I often meet people in life that remind me in some fashion of other folks I’ve met. It is a metaphysical, cosmic certainty that I will never meet another Kevin. He was not one bead down a long necklace. He was a unique, genuine, one-of-a-kind custom design human being.

I’m of the firm belief that we can change ourselves radically. We can level up and be a better version of ourselves. Character as a verb means to inscribe or engrave, and it’s a gradual process of carving and cultivating dispositions into a deeper part of yourself. Move in the right direction. Advance the ball, even if it’s ever so slightly. Be a tiny bit better than you were yesterday. As Miyamoto Musashi declared, “Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over a lesser foe.” Refinement of character is an incremental, iterative practice, and there's never an endgame in sight. 

If you have a bad day? Shake it off with some ruthless, self-love, as tomorrow is another chance to make your mark. As I was once told, what's on tomorrow? Opportunity and obligations. The opportunity to see life as it is and the obligation to figure out what else it can be.  

If we could all be a little more like Kevin - if I could have everybody download and install a piece of the software that he was running - the world would be a significantly enhanced place. Kevin was strongly motivated to be the best person he could be and was of service to something greater than himself. In an era defined by an exceeding amount of narcissism, megalomania, and self-promotion, with people taking far more than they give, it's critical - indeed necessary - to celebrate someone who not only reciprocated, but so consistently devoted his life to a calling beyond himself. He respected the path of service and walked it laudably.

I suspect all of you currently have or have had your own Kevin figure in your life. The compounding benefits of fostering those kinds of relationships and friendships with people utterly devoted to a life of service - whose reach exceeds their grasp - are massively underrated. The dividends are perpetual and continue to increase and increase. 

Malvalio in Twelfth Night suggests that, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em." When a person achieves greatness by the agreed-upon standards of society - you win Wimbledon, you win an Academy Award, you win the Nobel Prize in Physics - people correctly label that person as great. However, I would respectfully add one more definition of greatness to that mix. When a person achieves greatness by continually demonstrating goodness, they have done a far more admirable and significant thing. People like Kevin have been, and continues to be, a model for that in my life. I constantly marvel about his tower of service and his unyielding quest to keep raising the bar of being of service - for his family, his friends, humanity, and Earth and everything in it - and take copious notes as I strive to match that in my own life.

Sam Harris beautifully articulates the fleeting nature of life. “You've had a thousand chances, to tell the people closest to you, that you love them. In a way that they feel it, and in a way that you feel it, and you've missed most of them. No matter how many times you do something, there will come a day where you do it for the last time. You've got this one opportunity to fall in love with existence. So why not relax and enjoy your life? You are in a game, right now, and you can't see the clock, and yet you're free to make the game as interesting as possible. You can even change the rules. You can discover new games that no one has thought of yet. You can literally build a rocket to go to Mars so that you can start a colony there. But whatever you do, however seemingly ordinary, you can feel the preciousness of life. And an awareness of death is the doorway into that way of being in the world.”

Do I harbor any regrets when I think about my relationship with Kevin? Apart from regretting not being as conscientious as I should have to snag him for dinner, I wish I could have appropriately conveyed the level of admiration I had for him while he was still alive that was commensurate with the impact he made and continues to make on my life. It's gutwrenching and heartbreaking to not have him around and for me not to receive that 90-day check-up call. His way-too-soon passing has incepted existential questions in my mind about what it really means to have a life well-lived in a way that I've derived a valuable lesson from it. Naturally I wish I could have gotten the lesson through other circumstances, although as Harris saliently observes, you never are entirely sure when it may be your last interaction with someone. So don't delay, and express to that special person how much they mean to you. 

I talk a big game here, but my walk-the-talk Kevin style execution is lacking. I'm far overdue to give my high school soccer coach, Sam, one of the finest humans who has ever drawn a breath, a call to tell him how much I appreciate him. By writing it here, I'll leave myself with no choice but to follow through. Tony Robbins hits the nail right on the head when he says, "In life, lots of people know what to do, but few people actually do what they know. Knowing is not enough! You must take action.”

"So let it be written; so let it be done," is a line from the movie The Ten Commandments, although that message sounds like something that Kevin would have said, along with "There shall be no lying in this quad." More importantly, it's something that Kevin embodied. As Ra's al Ghul instructs young Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins“The training is nothing! The will is everything! The will to act.”

Society changes when a small group of people find a better way to live, Brooks reasons, and the rest of us copy them. Kevin didn't have this market completely cornered - all roads lead to Rome -  but so many of the qualities he epitomized provide a valuable blueprint that is highly instructive and certainly worth copying. If this writing in some small way honors him, and someone finds something in his life to be applaudable and worth emulating, the ripple effects of his example and legacy will continue to positively influence the world.

The notion that everything comes full circle in life seems cliche, but sometimes it's fitting. Although I often forgot him for dinner, I certainly don’t forget about Kevin now. Kevin, your indelible imprint will motivate me and many others for the rest of our lives. It's hard to reconcile - and it breaks my heart - how Kevin died when he still had so much to give, but there is deep honor in passing having lived an extraordinary life and leaving a legacy that inspires those around you to maximize their potential in life. Thoughts and much love go to you, your remarkable family, and the sky community, which is now with Kevin's addition most definitely a more organized, more disciplined, more loving, and more beautiful place.


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