A Rage to LIVE. Part II.
Cambodia. October 2011. I had shown up in Phnom Penh as a full-time volunteer, not eager to die, just eager to matter, eager to help. I had made contacts at International Justice Mission and a few other NGO’s working against the sexual slavery and human trafficking so rampant in Southeast Asia and across the world. I wanted to help save lives; was willing to risk my own if necessary. I had no idea what actually awaited. I witnessed someone murdered my first week in country. Was laughed at by security when I intervened in shorts and flip flops to stop a husband from mercilessly beating his wife in plain view. “Call the police,” I said, her face dripping blood from the passenger seat of a Lexus. Their response as they laughed: “You have money?” For every story of rescue and redemption there was an equally devastating one of a woman trapped in abuse, of a child who had returned to the only life she knew - that of a slave. She had been branded an outcast by the very society and system that had cast her out. And worse, slavery was the best option available to her if she wanted to eat, to have shelter. What have we come to when slavery represents someone's best hope to survive? It was a brutal and sobering education in the realities of evil. Even the best of intentions can come to naught or even backfire if they do not dismantle evil’s root and foundation.
Three months into my two-year commitment, I was run over by a bus full of people going 60 while astride a motorcycle in the middle of the countryside. I remember lying on the side of that dirt road thinking, “So this is how it ends.” I remember recounting Dostoevsky to a friend for 3 hours in the back of a pickup on the way to the hospital, trying to explain The Grand Inquisitor so I didn’t fall asleep. And I remember wondering where the hell God could be in all that I had seen, all that I had experienced. “Is it Thou?” The Brothers Karamazov sits on the shelf next to me as I write, my blood still smeared on the cover.
I survived. Somehow. And was left wondering what came next on the 30 hour flight home. Two years of rehabilitation and multiple surgeries awaited. As did a life that, it seemed, would look much different than the one I had planned just months before. Life, like the motorcycle I was on, had been broken in half.
Somewhere in Suburban America. Winter 2012. I remember sitting outside on a bench in a small suburb. I had stepped outside to escape the suffocating reality that had descended with a speed like a white hot bolt of summer lightning. I had been left to pick up the pieces of my life and rebuild what I could with worn-out tools. A life that, for all its suffering and difficulty, still shone like a beacon of blessing compared to those I had left behind. I couldn’t breathe. I was supposed to be disabled the rest of my life - told I’d likely never fully recover. Certainly never enough to go back after the dream for which I had trained since graduating college. And I had seen so much, so much that I couldn’t forget. So much from which I could not look away. So I stepped outside with a pipe and glass of bourbon just to stare up at the bare branches against a dark sky. Just to breathe. A man walked by comparing the merits of fast food restaurants to which he was partial. A movie played inside. The suburban inhabitants of this world seemingly tucked away safely, at least from slavery and murder, at least for today. The poem by Dylan Thomas came to me without warning, without fanfare. Just a simple, resolute exhortation. “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, Rage, against the dying of the light.”
I decided on that bench that this was not the end. I would rebuild. I would go back. And I would take a stand. Come hell or high water.
Cambridge. October 2014. Having rehabbed my body, been accepted into graduate school at Harvard, and selected for Naval Special Warfare Officer Selection, I had also been asked to give a sermon for Good Friday. What do you say on the day within the Christian tradition when all hope of freedom seemed to die, a day on which a man was crucified for championing the rights of the least of these? I was riding a Triumph Bonneville T100 motorcycle on the twisted and tarr’d roads outside Cambridge when Jesus Walks by Kanye came across the bluetooth speakers in my helmet.
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the Shadow of Death…”
Words poured out of me in that helmet, spit-stop sputtering the whole ride home. When I walked in the door I wrote every word down. Alan Ginsberg meet Kanye meet Jesus. I’m not sure how often the Harvard community hears a hip-hop, beat poet slam on Good Friday, but they did in 2015.
Little did I know I was writing a script for my own life.
Boston. February 2015. A matchbox studio apartment. A best friend who had flown back early from Bahrain to California, then driven to Massachusetts. The words “Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma” rang in our heads, an echo of the cancer diagnosis I had just been given. These are the things I remember, the things I carry from that day. Carson heard the diagnosis, reached into his bag and pulled out a 38 year old bottle of scotch. We were dreaming of a trip to sail the 7 seas and climb the 7 summits. The scotch was supposed to be the bottle we drank atop every peak conquered, every time we risked bodily harm and the possibility that there might not be a return journey home. Some might say the heart of the ocean or the tip of the peak is the very centre of the world for that confrontation. For me, it was there. Then. “Here’s to the fight, brother.” There might not be a journey home.
Justin Bieber just released an album entitled, Justice. The 7th track on the album, MLK Interlude, quotes an excerpt from a speech by Dr. King - “I say to you this morning, that if you have never found something so dear and so precious to you that you will die for it, then you aren't fit to live. You may be 38 years old, as I happen to be, and one day some great opportunity stands before you and calls upon you to stand up for some great principle, some great issue, some great cause. And you refuse to do it because you are afraid. You refuse to do it because you want to live longer. You're afraid that you will lose your job, or you are afraid that you will be criticized or that you will lose your popularity, or you're afraid that somebody will stab you or shoot at you or bomb your house. So you refuse to take a stand. Well, you may go on and live until you are ninety, but you are just as dead at 38 as you would be then. And the cessation of breathing in your life is but the belated announcement of an earlier death of the spirit. You died when you refused to stand up for right. You died when you refused to stand up for truth. You died when you refused to stand up for Justice.”
Damn. By 27 I had stared down the possibility of my own death. Twice. I had been homeless. I had rebuilt and overcome and resurrected dreams I had every reason to give up for dead. I had faced those experiences with a determination and a resolve of which I was proud, and, yet, I was haunted by the thought, “What have I stood for? What have I made my life a testament to? What great principle, great issue, great cause have I stood up for, willing to risk death? What have I done worth remembering? What have I done for others?”
A diagnosis of a disease that could come back at any time and for which there remain no effective treatments forced me to confront myself, to confront those questions. I have had to answer them as best as I could. How do we live a life such that when our end has come we need not cry for more time; nor spit fire, nor spout rain? Nor rage, rage.
How should we then LIVE?
I can only answer by remembering the eyes and voices of the enslaved; the joyful moment of forgetting as refugees played on an open field; the body, almost unrecognisable, of a three-year old consumed by disease; the cries of those gunned down by racism, by terrorism; the desperation, shouted or whispered, of those who have been left to die. And the victorious roar of those who have been set free.
No matter how much time I may have left on this earth, I cannot look away from injustice. I will not. I have no choice, having seen, but to make my life a testament to freedom and to justice. To redemption. So that when that day comes, when I must go the way of all sinners and saints and breathe my last, I shall not cry for more time, nor spit fire nor spout rain. So that, on that day, when it is time, I may die well. So that on that day it may be said of me, “He Died of Nothing but a Rage to LIVE.”