Paul and the Lamenter’s Courage
When I lose, the pain is so intense, and the emotions roll through me. Facing a loss where I know I could have done better is even harder. When I do think about the losses, I‘m more inclined to side with Susan Mersereau, who says that “one of the things that helped me later on in my business career was not seeing failure or losing as a bad thing so much as something you can learn from.”
— Venus Ebony Starr Williams, Tennis Superstar and 4-time Olympic Gold Medalist
In 1999, as she broke the horizon of an eventually bright and highly-influential tennis career, Venus Williams arrived to the U.S. Open seeded third favorite and having won five professional championships through the Women’s Tennis Association. Venus, athletic and august at six feet one inches, just 19 years old, beamed confidence and exhibited at once otherworldly composure on the court and youthful exuberance off the court. Such was her outward appearance. Internally, she girded herself for the race-insensitive comments and reporting characteristic of tennis in the 90s, and dealt quietly with injurious bouts of diffidence. Belief is the singular intangible that transforms an unexceptional tennis athlete into an unbounded tennis superstar; Venus had been building hers behind a façade of resolve and self-assuredness. In her semifinal match against Martina Hingis, who was slighter, less athletic and uncommonly clever for an 18-year-old, the ruse of Venus’ confidence was dismantled. Hingis brandished —extravagantly— the one weapon Venus lacked: true belief. The match was a tussle of balletic athleticism against guile and craft, both sets of skills equal to the other but for a want of belief. Venus lost in just over two hours, protracted over three sets. She would later lament opportunities to change the course of the match that she missed because she did not have the courage to seize on them. After an extended break from tennis due to injury, Venus returned during the Spring of 2000 believing that her success turned on a willingness to move boldly through even the smallest windows of opportunity. On this belief, her career crested, and the rest is legendary.
Belief is the seedling of courage, and courage the deeply-rooted, tall and broad oak that reaches out to the sun and other elements for an opportunity to grow.
At 20-years-old, I met a college mate who would go on to be at first just a regular lunch companion, then this nerd’s hero, and ultimately a true confidante. Initially I distrusted him. He seemed too audacious, concerningly guileful, and mature enough for 30 when he was only 21. I was two-years-removed from small-town Alabama, alarmingly naïve, and a rather immature 20. I had grown up devoutly Christian; he was agnostic and dismissive of Christianity. We were, it seemed, oil and water. I erected an emotional barrier against his “blasphemous” protestations toward the Christian church, and rebuffed his not-so-subtle intimations that he understood me better than I understood myself. I challenged his disbelief and his generally cynical approach to life. It was attack and riposte, over warm meals, on a sprawling-but well-contained campus, in the middle of particularly harsh winter, in the idylls of Northshore Chicago. In the end, we were the same. We were, in fact, better than the same: complementary opposites.
Eventually, our charges and parries became feints, our feints disengagements, our disengagements respectful exchanges. Before we realized it, we were friends. You see, life had fated that a tall, brawny, intrepid Midwesterner from St. Louis would by chance forge a true friendship with a shorter, scrawny, guileless-but-silver-tongued Southerner from a small town called Greenville. Paul goaded me out of my shell and challenged me to see life fully, to live it and feel it, to have stories to tell that would rivet both a captive audience and passersby! And, he exemplified his provocations.
I devoured every minutiae of his tales with rapt attention, occasionally pausing him so that I could have a quick trip to the water closet or claim any pastries the coffee shop on campus might have tossed to prevent them from going stale. I needed sustenance to consume these lessons in life he was teaching! I hung on every word, and began to anticipate our lunch then lunch-and-dinner conversations. In fact, we once, on a coincidental day of cancelled classes for both, exchanged tales and confessions from early afternoon lunch until well after late evening dinner. We discovered our similarities. We were both dedicated students. We were both passionate about life, from different approaches. We were both loyal to a fault and equally unforgiving of betrayals. (This would later be more important than we could have discerned at those ages.) We were at once very similar and also unlike-poles that connected magnetically and without resistance. I grew to really respect and love my friend, and out of respect for his disbelief, secretly and quietly prayed for him. I thought at the time, “How could God not allow such a great person into Heaven when there are so many professed Christians who are –to be polite– less than great?” I prayed, in secret, for him until life tore us apart.
Paul graduated one year ahead of me, but came back for my graduation. He remembered that I had pledged to not consume a drop of alcohol until I graduated. (I was on a partial scholarship that my parents, who were school teachers, could not have covered if low marks disqualified me.) He remined me that I had pledged –in one of innumerable conversations—that once it was confirmed that I would receive my degree, I would have my first drink with him, the one person I trusted more than anyone else on campus, the person who knew more about my life and dreams than even some of my very close friends. He chose one of the coolest bars, somewhere downtown Chicago. It was a re-purposed warehouse in an industrial area. I worried that if I got drunk and lost control, he would be embarrassed and, worse, leave me there! He assured me that he would not leave me, and that if I became uncontrollable, he would clunk me over the head (he, a 2nd degree black belt in Taekwondo), dump me in the backseat of his car, and drive me back to campus. We laughed as I consumed first a lemon drop and then a screwdriver. And then a second screw driver. And then a third. Paul gently suggested I allow the alcohol to have its effect before I consumed any more. (He had softened as our friendship burgeoned.) I listened. We went back to campus, and I was met by other friends who had also remembered my pledge. They were waiting with drinks in hand, and were shocked when I announced, “I am already wasted!” Hands held high, exultant. I caught a glimpse of Paul out of the corner of my eye, and he looked happy for me. I wondered how a friendship grew from what seemed like so many differences. The answer was of little consequence.
Three months after graduating, I left to spend a year researching in Chile. When I returned, Paul had tried his hand at working in Finance in New York, but was back in Chicago. This was the late nineties, and there was no social media. While we were apart, we did our best to stay in touch over Hotmail. Once reunited, we took up our friendship exactly where we had left it. It was beautifully intact! I lived with a friend until I could find work, and he surprisingly decided to join the US Air Force. This we had never discussed. I was supportive, but disappointed that the unlikely but dynamic duo would again be apart. So was he.
He was stationed in Colorado, and asked that I come out for a visit. I earned a wage that was always accounted for! There was no extra, and I could not fly out. Paul, secretly, took offense. He began to betray our friendship, to reveal doubts, insecurities, fears, and confidentialities that we had sworn to never disclose. A mutual friend delivered the truth to me over P.F. Chang’s and pretentious chatter. I was so devastated that my mind wandered for the rest of the evening. How could he? I kept the gut-wrenching revelation to myself, even when Paul and I spoke over the phone. He could sense the distance, but I feigned tiredness and stress from work. When he visited, I confronted him with the truth, and for the first time in five years, we took up our sabres. The ensuing attack and counterattack were deadly, and we ended our friendship that very evening. Paul and I never spoke again.
As the years passed, just as quietly as I prayed for him in my early twenties, I began to follow his life on social media. My mouse hovered over <<Friend>> or <<Follow>> on multiple occasions, but I would talk myself down. My anger had been righteous, after all. I desisted, over and over and repeatedly. Four years ago, a mutual friend made a terribly veiled attempt at re-connecting us, and I bristled. I insisted that I had no interest in his life, and furtively hoped that she would update me nevertheless. She did not. Two weeks ago, I received news that Paul had died suddenly in his sleep. The news came by way of yet another mutual friend with whom Paul had been in very recent contact; this friend thought I would want to know.
Paul was gone.
With him he carried my hopes of reconciliation, my broken heart as a true friend, but left behind the greatest lesson he has ever taught: It takes real courage to forgive, and you may never have more than one last chance to practice it. I hope my prayers worked.