I did a book signing a few nights ago in Mississippi. There, I met a kid who gave me a hug so hard that he almost broke my ribs.
He was maybe seventeen. His name was Robert. He was slightly bald, and bone thin. He asked me to sign his book. Then, without saying another word, he handed me a folded note and disappeared.
This morning, I am reading his letter:
“Sean, I’m mad at the world. I can’t relate to my friends anymore, they’re all into dumb things in life, and I’m just not like them. Maybe it’s because I almost died three separate times from my cancer, and now that I’ve got a clean bill of health I’m not into all that shallow [bad word] that my friends are into.
“My dad left my mom when I was sick and he didn’t want to deal with me anymore, and I know I should be happy because I’m cancer free for now, but I’m so mad. Help.”
Robert, first off: We in this world all owe you an apology. Let me be the first to offer mine. People can be blind sometimes, and I’m no exception. Humans do some bizarre things. Drive-thru liquor stores are only one example.
We can be unkind, hateful, uncaring, selfish, rude, and impulsive. Humans will let you down. But please don’t get too upset at us.
Sure, I know you feel like you’re an outsider, and that nobody understands you. And you’re right. Partially. But you’re also wrong. Because this world is full of outsiders. I’m one of them. And there are billions more of us.
But yes. For the most part you’re right about us all. This world is a mess. We’re self-important, self-promotional, self-interested, self-congratulatory, and self-aggrandizing, and some people are lactose intolerant.
And don’t even get us started on money. Nobody ever comes out and admits it, but we are all obsessed with money, Robert. Stupid, lifeless, inanimate money. Even people who say they don’t care about it, they’re the worst ones.
So you have every right to be ticked off at the world, but I hope you don’t stay angry. Especially at your dad.
Your father is a person. Not a storybook character. Not a superhero. Not a legend. He’s a human. And humans screw up. Big time. We people are so flawed that it’s not even funny.
Maybe you gave me your letter because you think I’m not screwed up. Well, pardon me while I laugh so hard I pee my pants.
Robert. I’m about as screwed up an old refrigerator. If I were your close friend, you’d find out that I’m just as painfully human as your father. And I would probably make you sick.
Anyway, I’m not saying I know why people hurt other people. And I don’t know how to make it better. I’m not saying that it’s going to be okay. I can’t tell you that things will go back to normal. I can’t tell you that your father will ever make things right.
What I can tell you is that you are not the same kid you were before your cancer. It changed you. It made you wise. You are miles above Joe Six-Packs like me. You have become a special human being. It’s your new superpower.
In the mornings, you probably look out your window and see things that your father can’t see. Birds, sky, trees, and sunshine. This simple beauty overcomes you. And I’ll bet it makes you grateful.
And I’ll bet sometimes you wish you could tell the whole world about it. Maybe you wish you could shout at everyone, “Wake up people! This is your life! Don’t miss it!”
But we’re slow learners, Robert. Go easy on us. We’re confused. That’s all. Just like your father. We aren’t bad people.
We’re like little laboratory mice in one of those mazes, looking for cheese. We don’t know where we are, or where we’re supposed to go. Deep down we’re unsure about everything. Even ourself.
Who are we? What the hell are we supposed to want? Happiness? Is life really all about our own selfish happiness? Because if it is, then what about everyone else? What about THEIR happiness? What IS happiness?
And maybe that’s why heaven puts people like you here, Robert. To help us. I know we disappoint you a lot. But if you could just be patient with us, maybe you could help.
“How could I possibly help?” you might ask.
Well, don’t ask me. I don’t know my own butt from page twelve in the phonebook. But I know that everyone wants to feel the same reverence for life that you felt after being discharged from the hospital. We want to see the bright colors you see. We want to know what it means to be alive.
Maybe you can pull back the curtain just a little and show us all what you know. Maybe you can show us how to care about other people.
Maybe one day, when you’re ready, you can teach us how not to be angry.
Either way, promise me that you’ll cut us all a little slack for getting it wrong more often than we get it right. We can be so wrong sometimes. So very wrong. I hope you forgive your friends for abandoning you. And your father for leaving when you needed him most.
And I hope you forgive us all, Robert. If for no other reason than because we know not what we do.
Frank - March 6, 2020 8:43 am
Nice, Sean. Very, very nice!
theholtgirls - March 6, 2020 9:33 am
Oh, Sean. What a perfect response to Robert’s letter! I know that what you’ve written is true – Cancer changes a person. We now have a perspective that others simply do not have. Gratitude for oxygen and sunlight and grits made right in the hospital ~ these are all wonderful things! Suddenly, I wish I’d hugged the lady who delivered those grits and a heart-warming smile!
I wish I could give Robert a gentle hug – I’m still in recovery. I know his heart hurts, but I am proud of him! A clean bill of health is quite an accomplishment. Every day he wakes up alive is proof that God is not finished with him yet! <3
I wish I could hug his father and beg him to come home. ALL hands on deck are needed when going up against cancer.
Thank you for sharing this part of Robert's story. I pray that it is not finished yet…
Ann - March 6, 2020 10:52 am
Ohhhh Sean, that touches nearly everyone of us in some way…..thank you for sharing this….we do need to “ clearly live”🤗🤗
SSminoe - March 6, 2020 12:31 pm
Robert’s tender feelings and your wise words are very touching. I pray Robert can help his father find peace. God bless his mother.
Steve - March 6, 2020 12:46 pm
What a powerful perspective from Robert and from you. Just excellent.
Richard - March 6, 2020 12:59 pm
Sean this your best piece on here yet! Especially the last sentence. God bless young friend.
Kay Britton - March 6, 2020 1:12 pm
I do believe this is one of your wisest columns. Thanks for making me really think this morning. You are just downright precious ❤️
Allison Gilmore - March 6, 2020 1:15 pm
Well, Sean, you did it again. I woke up feeling downright cranky, overwhelmed with all the bad news, incivility, greed, and political mess in our world. I have a busy day ahead and I knew I needed a major attitude adjustment to get through it without adding to the incivility around us. I told the universe that I need help in changing my perspective. Reading this message to Robert in Mississippi was exactly what I needed. My tears came, my perspective shifted, and I can now get on with my day because I have been reminded that as I go through my day, I may encounter a teen who looks sullen but he is really grieving over his family situation or his health or his anger toward the world. Or I may encounter a woman who seems rude, but she is really just distracted by worry over her son’s illness or about how she will pay the bills as a single mother or how she can face a job she hates for another day. Or I may encounter a man who seems angry at the world but he is really just angry at himself for abandoning his family and he just doesn’t know how to fix things. Everybody has stuff going on, and I have been gently reminded to just be kind to everyone.
Sherrie - March 6, 2020 1:26 pm
You are so right. Perfect response.
Peggy Thompson - March 6, 2020 1:33 pm
Amen …Prayers & blessings for you Robert. God is with you keep your faith, your life will get better!🙏
Marie - March 6, 2020 1:47 pm
You came so close to inviting Jesus into his life. . . I hope He’s in yours!
Lisa Snow - March 6, 2020 1:48 pm
Perfect and, as always, beautiful answer to a wounded heart.
Dianne DeVore - March 6, 2020 2:08 pm
Sean……….wonderful answers and advice to that young man. I know he will treasure your response to his note the rest of his life. One day, we might all have the privilege of reading a book written by him.
Diane Whtie - March 6, 2020 2:20 pm
Truer words have not been spoken. I have not had to face death, but I have felt, and continue to fell at times, exactly what Robert feels. GOD puts us here for a reason, what we do with that is up to us. I am still learning (I am 51). God Bless Robert!
mark3:26 - March 6, 2020 3:03 pm
I don’t disagree. I just sometimes get angry with a comment that says, “If you just say these very specific magic words, it will be vastly better than you can even imagine!”
I hope and pray that you’re right just as I hope and pray for my own forgiveness as much as forgiveness for those who can’t ask.
Ala Red Clay Girl - March 6, 2020 3:53 pm
Thank you…there’s a life lesson for all of us in this story today.
Pat - March 6, 2020 3:53 pm
What a powerful message for all of us! Thank you!
sparkerlpc - March 6, 2020 5:00 pm
This right here is one of your best. If not THE best. I hope that Robert’s father wises up. And if not, that his friends look beyond the stupid ____ and connect with him again.
In the face of such abandonments, I think you said it as well as anyone ever could. I hope Robert connects with the One Who said it first…”They know not what they do.”
Shelton A. - March 6, 2020 5:38 pm
Beautifully said. Thanks and also true about us. Wish it was different, but it’s not. If you can reach the kid, tell him to join a support group. He’ll make new friends with people who understand him. Hope he does forgive all the people who hurt him or let him down, especially his dad.
Sara Gwynn Brackett - March 6, 2020 5:40 pm
A+++++ (I’m a retired schoolteacher!) Sean, you hit nail on head! So REAL, SO POWERFUL! I am So Grateful for your gift of WORDS IN JUST RIGHT ORDER…..MAY GOD CONTINUE TO BLESS YOU GOOD & HAVE YOU SHARE WITH US…👍❤️🙏
Linda Moon - March 6, 2020 5:43 pm
I’m a four-time cancer survivor and still in a battle from recurrence of a rare kind. I’ve often wondered why I lived and children or teenagers died. Robert is right…the shallow (bad word) leaves us. It can be replaced with tolerance and love and forgiveness for others, but not easily. I know and love lots of outsiders, including my-own-self. I understand Robert. Sean, you are right….Robert won’t ever be the same kid he was B.C. (Before Cancer). And, your last two paragraphs said everything most of us need to know. And I especially needed this today.
Amy - March 6, 2020 5:52 pm
Sean you have done it again……what a wise person you are! Thank you for your writings. They inspire me to try and do better!
Mr. Jack - March 6, 2020 7:30 pm
Such wisdom and comfort in your words. And now I have much more tolerance toward the lactose intolerant.
Mary T - March 6, 2020 8:54 pm
Sean, Your statement “This is your life. Don’t miss it”, reminds me of a statement which you made a year, or so, ago. I embroidered it on a quilt I was making at the time. It said, “This is your life. Pay attention.” Good advice for us all.
Rebecca Souders - March 6, 2020 9:07 pm
Your words never fail to lift me up, Sean, and I’ll bet they lifted Robert too! Good work; good words!
Grant Burris - March 6, 2020 9:17 pm
Sean I know I say this a lot but I really like this story. I especially like your stories about dads Who need to be cut some slack. I’m also partial to those stories about hard-working waitresses who might also be moms. They usually are. Your compassion touches my heart.That’s why I normally read your stories only when I’m alone in my room so that no one can see the tears. Thank you for great stories that fill my heart with lotta memories.
Lois - May 19, 2020 8:34 pm
Allison, it does make a world of difference in us if we pay attention, really pay attention to others and imagine just what they are going through. Pain about something in their life. Pain colors our perspective. We act a lot nicer when we are not in pain AND we are less critical when we realize everyone is in pain at times..