John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.
John's articles are here.
One of the goals in life is to achieve “authentic happiness”, to aspire to feeling genuinely complete. As part of the balance of life, we constantly go through a loss and rebirth process in our quest for well-being. Several years ago, one of our students was killed in an automobile accident. Richard (name has been changed) was a very special young man who was loved by all who knew him in our school community. He was in a student in my Foundations of Health Behavior class and we had just completed an exercise on “character strengths observations” several days before his passing. His parents asked me to say a few words at his memorial service:
Love is patient; love is kind
and envies no one.
Love is never boastful, nor conceited, nor rude;
never selfish, not quick to take offense.
There is nothing love cannot face;
there is no limit to its faith,
its hope, and endurance.
In a word, there are three things
that last forever: faith, hope, and love;
but the greatest of them all is love.
~ 1 Corinthians 13 ~
Richard loved. A staple of the classes I teach revolves around students reflecting on different traits that they might consider to be their signature strengths and how they can enact those traits to live an authentically happy life. Of the twenty four characteristics, student thoughts typically range from a “love of learning” to- “perseverance/industry/diligence” to “kindness and generosity” to “playfulness and humor”. Yes, you would expect that Richard had acquired the aforementioned traits. Yes, these virtues were already healthfully packed in his tool box of life skills. However, when I asked my sophomores to share their strengths with others in class, Richard also added “appreciation of beauty and excellence” and “loving and allowing oneself to be loved” to his list. It was the first time in three years of conducting this exercise that a student had clearly articulated the “gift of love” in an open forum.
We are all imperfect beings with different desires, motive and appetites and, I would assume for most of us, that we want “to love and to be loved.” The consummate love relationship (based on Yale’s Robert Sternberg) is based on three tenets: Intimacy, passion and commitment. Intimacy – When you spoke with Richard, you felt like you were the only person the room. Passion: Every human interaction that Richard was involved in revolved around a fervor and enthusiasm that would be hard to be matched by the most ardent person – whether it be a game of “Halo”, a square pass on the soccer field or a class discussion. Commitment: Richard was committed to making others feel loved. His faithfulness and devotion to this cause reminds us of Martin Buber, the noted German theologian’s “I-Thou” relationship. In the vast acronyms of Culver, we can sometimes feel described as three letter objects. We are not things or objects, and Richard made sure in all his interactions, that we were made to feel as subjects, as fully functioning human beings.He has helped us in his life and in his death – albeit a bit difficult to imagine it at this time, to renew our commitment to being the authors of this dance with each other – be it in the classroom, living units, dining hall, playing fields or stage. We are all vitally interconnected and this is more evident at this moment than at anytime.
Alice Von Hildebrand cites one of Gabriel Marcel’s plays: “’Your death is my death’ It is true when we lose someone we love, something dies within us. And this is both painful and fearful.” However, the inverse can be said that “your life is my life. And hence, something is born again in us.
Richard, in his life and in his death has, in many ways, become a landscaper of our terrain at Culver. He influences the void many of us feel at this time, in our search to feel and be complete. We may always search for this, but Richard’s “gift” to us is that he helped make our lives a bit more complete. His rebirth into eternal life shakes many of us to the depths of our being. It has helped us experience the emotions of being fully human. Richard’s loss has helped us to renew our commitment to “loving ourselves and loving others.”
Hemingway said it best in A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone then some become strong at the broken places.” We must all unite and help each other to become stronger at this one broken place – and this can happen through our shared identity. This can only be done through “faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love.”
The Culver Academies
March 15, 2005
Culver Chapel courtesy of Sam Bobko