On the Occasion of a Sad Anniversary, We are the Fire

Two years ago today my friend Pete killed himself.

It was a Thursday then. It’s a Saturday today. The number and the month are the signifier, mark the date, but it is simply a mathematical signifier. The real, the emotional signifiers to me are a more regular occurrence. I see his car. I hear bands I want to share with him. I hear his laugh. I see book covers and I say, sure, it’s okay, but Pete would have done something cooler and then I remember that Pete isn’t here anymore to do it and Pete isn’t driving his car and this album isn’t maybe as great as I thought it was.

Even if you get no further than this paragraph, I want you to know that I love you. Friend, family, stranger, the language I may be able to give to my appreciation of you is different by circumstance, but it doesn’t change the fact that at my core, I love you. If you must go now, go in peace and know that I hear you.

This time, today, our present, is on fire. The fire is headlines, is a 24 hour news cycle, is social media. It’s on screen and inside of us and we are on fire. We burn. This world is—I’m talking of the macro now—on fire and it is arson and we are the burned and we are the fire starter.

And we are the firefighter.

The fire got Pete.

In the lengthy letter he left behind—a letter that was alternately heartbreaking and hilarious—Pete talked about how hard it is to live in a world where we know people are suffering (including you and me) but because we are so busy being busy or busy being anxious about things outside our control or busy not being, the suffering doesn’t go away. It hurt to read Pete’s letter because I could see how much it hurt Pete to write it. The theater is on fire.

We’re all hurt to some degree. I’m not a psychologist and I’m sure some of you are a lot tougher than me and will insist that you are not hurt, that you are an impenetrable wall of crackless brick, but your insistence is no substitute for the truth. Some folks don’t hurt much, others might hold their hurt in the quiet.

Still others, the resigned and hopeless, will act out against others or themselves. They will fight in bars or shoot indiscriminately into crowds or will send an email on a Thursday afternoon saying goodbye, for good.

We’re on fire. I am on fire. This is not a sports analogy.

Because I felt I had something to prove to Pete, some vague point about how we can make a living and help the living of others, I volunteered in all 50 states last year. I left feeling stubborn, and at the same time, fully expecting to take in a full year of everyday joy. Maybe even some kind of transcendent wonderment. All love. All light.

Sometimes the light is fire.

I spent time with those in need (including me), those who were hurt (including me), and those looking to love and be loved (including me). I experienced fellowship with the young and the old, the hungry, veterans, the battered, the desperate, the one time kids, the mothers and daughters and sons and brothers, the down but not out, the one step away from catastrophe, the just one more time to get away from all of this, the holy and the sinners—which is to say that I was around us all (including me).

Do you hear me? I hope you hear me. You who knows my voice, who knows the way it feels to hug me, who knows me by a profile photo and a status update, who only know me through the six hundred and fifty words you’ve just read—I hope you hear me. Me. Ben. Me. Son. Me. Brother. Me. Friend. Me. Stranger.

I’ll tell you one thing I learned. It’s not new or any huge revelation. I shouldn’t win an award for putting this to anybody’s attention, but here goes—

People like to be heard. They want to know you hear. That you understand. They want to know that you are out there, that they are not alone. And alone isn’t just an empty room. Alone is surrounded by people. Alone is inside a brain.

To be heard is to understand that somebody cares. To know that somebody cares is to know it’s worth getting things right, it’s worth living out our days in the beauty and wonder of the world around us, it’s worth being connected to this shared plot of land we call humanity, it’s worth putting out the fires we’ve started and the fires that consume us.

To be heard and to hear is to be human.

So today, on this solemn anniversary, on this regular Saturday, on this planet, in this crowd, in the quiet channel between us, you and me, I want you to know I love you and that I hear you.

And I hope you hear me, too.