I met Jim at a time of crisis. My life had spun out of control, and I didn’t know where to turn for help. By great good fortune, I was referred to him by a career counselor.
I think that between the two of them, Jim and that career counselor might have saved my life. Because of the time we spent together I learned to look at my life and my own actions in different ways—and I learned that, when life is too much to handle, I might have to let go of some of the big things, but I can still manage the little things.
I learned to be less concerned with whether something was “right” or “wrong” based on some abstract standard. I learned to develop my own standards, based on principles that were important to me.
Because he was my counselor and I was a client, I didn’t know him in a personal sense until years after our counseling sessions were over, but three things came through loud and clear in every conversation I had with him.
- He believed deeply that each of us has the right and the responsibility to live thoughtfully, mindfully, and positively.
- He absolutely understood that sometimes doing that requires difficult choices, and a lot of courage.
- He believed that people are capable of making those choices, and finding their courage.
Sometimes that was irritating. Sometimes I didn’t want to be responsible. Sometimes I wanted my life to be something that had just “happened” to me. If I was just a victim, I wasn’t responsible—I couldn’t be held accountable for all the stupid stuff I did.
Jim didn’t let me do that. He kept reminding me that though I might have been victimized in the past, it was in the past, and that now, in the present, I was the one in charge of my life, and my choices. I wasn’t a robot, programmed in early childhood. I was a person, and if I ever wanted to move beyond the pain of my past and present I was going to have to start making the choices that would lead me to a better place. He refused to be my “paid best friend.” He refused to accept the idea that counseling might go on for years and years. He refused to let me wallow. We talked about hard stuff—and then he challenged me to find ways of releasing the pain, and leaving the damaging patterns behind. He reminded me that I didn’t need those old, limited coping mechanisms—that the circumstances that had spawned them had disappeared into the past.
The day came when I no longer needed help remembering that I could shape my own life, and we said good bye. In later years we talked occasionally. More often, he would email me things he had written.
He wrote often about how to best challenge and support students to take charge of their own choices, and how hard that could be when in many ways they were not in control of their home and school environments. He cared deeply about the subject, and I can think of no better way to honor him than to pass on something he mentioned frequently in his writing: When life seems too big to handle, don’t worry about managing everything—just find one thing you can do to prove you are in control. Do your homework. Make your bed. Wash your clothes. Read a book. Exercise. Let yourself lose control sometimes—but you choose the time and place. You don’t have to do everything. Just do something. And then, when you’re ready, maybe something more.
Jim chose the time and manner of his passing, and that presents all of us with a challenge. It reminds us that no matter how much he may have helped us meet the challenges in our lives, his own life held challenges that, in the end, he felt unequal to meeting. If Jim had had a Jim, maybe he would have had that reminder that he need not do everything, that it was all right to let things go, as long as he didn’t let everything go. Maybe it would have made a difference. Maybe not. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making his decision be “all about me”–if I had been a better friend…if I had had a solution to offer…if I had called and emailed more often…But I choose not to do that. I choose to accord him the same respect and faith that he gave me when I needed it most. I choose to believe that, as a thoughtful, rational, intelligent man facing extremely difficult physical issues, he thoughtfully and carefully made the decision that would allow him to step away from the painful past and present into a better future. Above all, I respect his right to make that choice.
In the end, his death poses the same question for me that he often posed in counseling sessions. I can see him now, sitting, legs crossed, loafers neat, plaid shirt freshly pressed, listening to me do battle with what seemed an unbeatable foe. And then, when I had wound down, he would simply say, “That sounds like a challenge. What are you going to do about it?”
He’s no longer here to ask the questions. But perhaps the best way to remember him is to remember the words he used to express his faith in humanity, his conviction that each of us is capable of dealing with whatever life dishes out.
This is a challenge. What am I going to do about it?