When we headed to Africa for a family safari, I had no idea what to really expect.
Usually YPO International Events get rave reviews or is it just people defending their elaborate purchases? After a nearly 20-hour flight from Louisville, Ky. (the idea capital of the world) to Johannesburg, South Africa, then another flight to the Kruger Bush on a small plane into a rural airport, and then a dusty and bumpy drive to our safari lodge with four kids and your wife, you start second-guessing your biggest, most ambitious vacation idea ever.
On the first evening, on our very first “game drive” near dusk, we were informed by radio that there was a large lion kill where they fought against a tough buffalo for nearly a day before the buffalo finally succumbed to the repeat attacks that left it immobile as the four male lions took its life.
As our Land Rover raced to the site with our family, fellow passengers, and our rangers and spotters, my heart raced thinking what this could be. As we turned down winding, disheveled roads and cleared a large hill cutting through the bush, there it was…
Four male lions were surrounding this massive beast (a 1,200-lb. buffalo) with two biting out huge chunks of flesh, organs and cartilage in single bites. The other male was biting into the flesh so hard that as he rose up, the entire buffalo’s body would lift off the ground. Our vehicle pulled up within 20 yards to sit quietly and witness the ‘King of the Jungle,’ the ‘Pride of the Serengeti,’ gorge themselves until two were laying stretched out with protruding stomachs and falling asleep while we watched the other two tear through a large animal, which could feed my family for a year.
Here we were, all my young children watching the raw power of natural law, Darwin’s ’Survival of the Fittest,’ feeling the power of God’s creation from the beginning of time right here in Africa; I started to ponder. How did humanity survive in the first place, in this brutal area where we had to hide in caves, fight the elements, guard our children with a 50/50 chance they would even see adulthood because of constant attacks by jaguars, lions, wildebeests, hyenas, etc.?
It is amazing to sit this close and watch the beauty and brutality of nature, and the food chain we learn about in parochial schools, but how much do we owe our ancestors and their ability to persevere, innovate and just evolve over time to be the temporary winners of civilization just like God planned?
As the jeeps rode off into the sunset and I looked back, I thought about the Bible’s Creation Story and the study of evolution, knowing they were both somehow true!
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!