I have to admit I am nervous and in awe today as I wait calmly with my beloved Signature partners to greet His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. I know my personal connections go way back to early adulthood. And now, our Signature Spiritual Pillar operationalizes the need to feel and display compassion – the Dalai Lama’s central work and legacy – combining with our city to become a national leader in the Compassion City movement, making the perfect recipe for non-secular pulsating peace.
This can be validated all week long with our annual Festival of Faiths conference, one of the biggest in the world, with deep roots back to Merton’s writing and others. These recent moves can be attributed to our progressive mayor, who really gets it. This day is even bigger than any local athletic success on the world stage (don’t get mad U of L fans, it was an epic year), and it’s something Louisville needs to celebrate. Maybe that’s why I feel the anxiety…
He was last here in 1993 to honor Merton, revisiting with Kentucky as sounds of compassion were unveiled from the loins of Mammoth Cave. For me it seems like yesterday, but it was actually nearly 30 years ago when the father of my college girlfriend gave me the classic book ‘Siddhartha’, by Hermann Hesse, when I learned the Noble Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths for the first time – and a new world seemed to magically open. Not just because I was fighting my Catholic guilt all alone in my bedroom, but that Eastern contemplative way of life and our special Western ambition to be bold and lead intersect beautifully to make life all make sense.
Back then I was getting into reading about Thomas Merton anyway because it seemed like every Catholic young man consumed Merton’s famed ‘The Seven Storey Mountain.’ We could relate to the ‘Dante’s Inferno’ reference for what young men go through. Actually, for me, Thomas Merton was the first theological writer to openly admit since St. Augustine did more than 1,600 years ago his painful search to find the One voice. Anyone with deep ties to Bellarmine University knows the spiritual awakening we went through as we connected to Merton’s heritage with deep pride.
The intersection between Merton’s contemplative Christian views and his secular epiphany at old Walnut Street in downtown Louisville, seeing that true human compassion was a real possibility and not a theological construct, made many Louisvillian feel a deeper connection to something bigger than ourselves. So today is bigger than you might think for many of us who are withholding deepest private thoughts just to stay reflective and not lose this sacred moment.
Most know of Merton’s deep relationship with the Dalai Lama, their personal encounters, and Merton’s tragic passing on Dec. 10, 1968 in Thailand. His breakthrough speech about the monastic life, and intersections between East and West, are playing out in front of us at this moment as I wait passionately for the door to open and His Holiness to walk in to meet and greet all of his spiritual stakeholders who understand the significance of Right Now.
As the 14th leader of the fourth largest religion in the world, Buddhism, we all seem to want to know more about the Eastern contemplative lifestyle and his personal painful but rewarding journey to educate, motivate and share with everyone he greets that there is a better way… To live compassionately, without hate, to love fellow man as much as yourself, and to know that your ‘personal works’ are all you really own along this complicated path.
Like every gifted mortal, he teaches simplicity but his journey has complications, struggles for survival just like ours. And please remember one thing about Buddhism: the first noble truth is that ’suffering pervades reality, always,’ which means the human condition requires us to suffer. No one makes it out alive, or without suffering. I can’t tell you all of the suffering I personally have experienced or felt, but know I believe our suffering is truly equal because God wants it that way. Otherwise, we would never want to leave the here and now.
Oh my God, the door is opening, here he is, His Holiness is walking our way…
Prior to COVID, I think we all felt like we spent more time with work, work partners and peers than our own families. Was it good or bad? For me, I worked with some of the most talented people in the country, so I loved it. And obviously I love my family too! I had the blessing to work with a friend, brother, Savant, Mensa member, and so much more for nearly a decade and a half – Stephen Stocksdale. To say he was talented with an amazing range is honestly a great understatement in a world full of the opposite. Stephen did so much intellectually, professionally, and personally that for the first three years of working with him, I assumed it “all could not be true”. But time and time again I learned the opposite was true. He served our mission-based organization in every role (field leader, controller, administrator, VP, strategy, consultant, start-ups, etc.) and whatever else we asked of him. Despite having more professional success himself, he just wanted to help us grow in all ways.
One day 5 ½ years ago, Stephen was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and we grieved with him as you would expect. But he was a determined guy and decided to not just learn all he could about cancer, but to master it. He decided there had to be a path he could carve out for himself that no doctor had considered, or he would locate new research that would help him beat it. With a scientific mind and unparalleled IQ, he found a clinical trial he was approved to get in. This trial’s treatment regimen was so potent, and Stephen was the only one that survived. He learned about transfusions, blood structures, and cancer interventions. Cancer kicked his ass often, but he always beat it back up and won again!
We cheered, prayed, and cried often over the past years, but learned three great lessons from Stephen that we all cherish today:
- “Be a Lifelong Learner” because we can always master new things and age is just a number, but lifelong learners never get old. Stephen mastered EMT services, police work, cancer research, hospital administration, heart transplant programs, high level statistical methods, travel, long term care, teaching, and many other degrees, certifications, and accomplishments over 65 years, so let’s all keep Learning and keep growing!
- “Never Give Up” because we grow everyone around us in our struggles and sufferings in ways that impact everyone around us and Stephen knew that and wanted us to get stronger, be more grateful and relearn presence, which we all did! When he came back home, he rarely missed a day at the office and taught all of us new things daily up until the moment he passed last week.
- “GOD IS SO REAL” Stephen had historical expertise on religions, studied theological premises, and had a metaphysical outlook, but in this battle, he felt like he met the Lord and had to share it with all of us. He knew he beat something that is nearly unbeatable, and he wanted time to share his story, his walk, and his private time with the Lord. He watched prayer groups with people he barely knew praying 24/7 that he receives a miracle, and he did receive one that he could share with all of us.
Our organization is going through a very painful time as a mid-size nursing home organization that has stakeholders who worked under unbelievable stress and pressure for so long and had to endure seeing some of our residents pass away. We have lost half of our team, and we are still trying to rebuild stronger and better. I think after serving through the pandemic for 2 ½ years and struggling with how to bring it all back together in this changing workplace and overworked healthcare system, and after suffering so much pulsating unknowns for so long, it was Stephen who gave us the best reason to not look back. He taught us to enjoy the struggle as something that can deepen us all and stay prayerful that God is with us during times like these. We need to rebuild and have new passion as learners, which Stephen demonstrated everyday making our lift just a little easier. And lastly, when you beat cancer four times and die from something else, how could we ever give up? It’s time for us to just “STOCKSDALE IT” and grow by learning, fighting harder and believing in our purpose!
Stephen’s office will remain untouched for now because when he left work on Monday with his ambitious assignments on his wall, we never knew we would not see him again. However, we can certainly feel his presence and we are all better people for his amazing lessons that he taught us until his last hour!