Making a Difference

I am sitting here at the Starbucks in Mt. Laurel, NJ. A very dear old friend of mine from Cherry Hill committed suicide on Monday and I am here for the funeral.

I first met Bill the summer after my senior year in high school. When you know someone that long, you have a lot of history. I am very close to his wife Shellie and his two children Ethan and Emily.

Bill was a very prominent attorney. His specialties were criminal law and civil rights law. He has this long resume of accomplishments. He was a public figure. This will be a big funeral with lots of well known people.

But what strikes me most about all this is that for the many wonderful things that Bill did and for the memorable person he was, he was never happy. He was incredibly smart and competent and capable and had a great sense of humor. But underneath it all was lurking this dark seed.

I remember when I first heard the Dalai Lama and he talked about how everyone wants to be happy, and I thought, well, of course, how obvious is that? But as I have gotten older and – hopefully – wiser I have realized just what a subtle and complicated business being happy is. We start by misdefining it as money, career, “success”, having a trophy husband or wife, being famous, being talented, etc. and of course if any of those things were the keys to happiness then people who have those things would be happy. They’re not.

The Buddha asked that question in a big way, and he went to extraordinary lengths to find the answer, and it is one reason that I am so eternally grateful to that big Indian lug for what he did.

The last time I saw Bill was last May when I was on my way out to New Mexico. His daughter asked him why he became a lawyer, to which he answered, “I wanted to make a difference.”

Well, he did, and in a bigger way than most people. (It is to be argued, of course, that everyone makes a difference. Some differences are good and some are bad, and some are bigger than others. Henry David Thoreau said, “Show me a seed and I am prepared to expect miracles.” You never know what kind of a difference you are making.) So I have been thinking that his epitaph should be, “He made a difference.” And then I thought, what I would like if I were to have an epitaph? I think I would like this: “Sometimes he really liked to breathe.” The hope is that over time, this, too, will make a difference.

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