What’s the most important thing you’ve done in your life?” The question was put to me during a presentation I gave to a group of lawyers. The answer came to me in an instant. It’s not the one I gave, because the setting wasn’t right. As a lawyer in the entertainment industry, I knew the audience wanted to hear about my work with celebrities. But here’s the true answer, the one that leapt from the recesses of memory…
The most important thing I've ever done occurred while playing tennis with a high-school friend I hadn't seen for some time. Between points we talked about what had been happening in each other’s lives. He and his wife had just had a baby boy, who was keeping them up at night. While we were playing, a car came screaming up the road towards the courts, its hooter blaring. It was my friend’s father, who shouted to my friend that his baby had stopped breathing and was being rushed to hospital. In a flash my friend was in the car and gone, disappearing in a cloud of dust.For a moment I just stood there, paralysed. Then I tried to work out what I should do. Follow my friend to the hospital? There was nothing I could accomplish there, I convinced myself. My friend’s son was in the care of doctors and nurses, and nothing I could do or say would affect the outcome. Be there for moral support? Well, maybe. But my friend and his wife both had large families and I knew they’d be surrounded by relatives who would provide more than enough comfort and support, whatever happened. All I could do at the hospital, I decided, was to get in the way. Also, I had plans with my family, who were waiting for me to get home. So I decided to head home and get hold of my friend later.
As I started my car, I realized that my friend had left his truck and keys at the courts. I now faced another dilemma. I couldn’t leave the keys in the truck. But if I locked the truck and took the keys, what would I do with them? I could leave them at his house, but with no paper on me to leave a note, how would he know I had done that? Reluctantly I decided to go past the hospital and give him the keys.
When I arrived, I was directed to a room where my friend and his wife were waiting. As I had thought, the room was filled with family members silently watching my friend console his wife. I slipped in and stood at the door, trying to decide what to do next. Soon a doctor appeared. He approached my friend and his wife, and in a quiet voice told them that their son had died; the victim of sudden infant death syndrome.
For what seemed an eternity, the two held each other and cried, oblivious of the rest of us standing around in pained, stunned silence. After they had composed themselves, the doctor suggested that they might want to spend a few moments with their son. My friend and his wife stood up and walked stoically past their family. When they reached the door, my friend’s wife saw me standing in the corner. She came over and hugged me and started to cry. My friend hugged me, too, and said, “Thanks for being here.”
For the rest of that morning, I sat in the casualty room of that hospital and watched my friend and his wife hold the body of their infant son, and say goodbye.
It’s the most important thing I have ever done.
The experience taught me three lessons…
First: The most important thing I've ever done happened when I was completely helpless. None of the things I had learnt at university, in three years of studying law or in six years of legal practice was of any use in that situation. Something terrible was happening to people I cared about; and I was powerless to change the outcome. All I could do was stand by and watch it happen. And yet it was critical that I do just that - just be there when someone needed me.
Second: The most important thing I’ve ever done almost didn’t happen because of things I had learnt in classrooms and professional life. Studying law taught me how to take a set of facts, break them down and organize them - then evaluate that information dispassionately. These skills are critical for lawyers. When people come to us for help, they’re often stressed out and depend on a lawyer to think logically. But while learning to think, I almost forgot how to feel. Today I have no doubt that I should have leapt into my car without hesitation and followed my friend to the hospital.
Third: I was reminded that life can change in an instant. Intellectually we know this - but we think the bad things, at least, will happen to someone else. So we make our plans and see the future stretching out in front of us as real as if it has already happened. But while looking to tomorrow, we may forget to notice all the todays slipping by. And we may forget that a job retrenchment, a debilitating illness, an encounter with a drunk driver or myriad other events can alter that future in the blink of an eye.
Sometimes it takes a tragedy to regain perspective on your own life. From that one experience I learnt to seek balance between work and living, to understand that the most satisfying career isn’t worth one missed holiday, one broken relationship or one day off not spent with the family. And I learnt that the most important thing in life isn’t the money you make, the status you attain or the honours you achieve. The most important thing in life is the junior team you coach, the youngsters you introduce to your passion or the poem you write - or the time when you’re just somebody’s friend.
Adapted and edited from a piece by James Kennedy – may God grant us the sense to take some time out for others in need ~ SB