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.