I went to high school in the late 70s, but I’m pretty sure all my classmates remember me, either because I was a star athlete or because, after my 10th grade youth group conversion, I was an ultra-vocal evangelical Christian. I’m absolutely sure they remember Jim Michaels, however, because he was the super smart gay kid the mean kids used to belittle. He wasn’t ‘out’ of course – there was no way to be out back then – but he was different in recognizable way, and that’s all it took. I never joined the bullying but, looking back, I wish I had done more.
I located Jim a few days ago, and sent him this email:
Dear James (or is it still Jim to me?),
My dear friend Matthew was here for a visit last week, during which he mentioned seeing you on an airplane a few years ago, which transported me back to our school days in a somewhat regretful way. Simply stated, based on what I knew of you then and what I know of myself now, I often wish I had sought a deeper friendship with you when I had the chance. You had an old soul, I think, and I always admired the singular way you carried yourself. As grateful as I am my journey through evangelical Christianity, I hate the way my religious zeal kept me from recognizing the sacred depths of everything else.
I thought of you again today, as one of my favorite secular students here at USC [University of Southern Carolina] was telling me about internships she’s exploring in acoustical engineering, and decided it was high time I let you know how grateful I am that I got to know you at all, how glad I am that you’re doing so well in your career, and how much I hope that you’re happy. If and when you visit Los Angeles, please know that there’s a meal and a friend waiting for you here.
The next day I got this reply:
I am really delighted to hear from you – what a lovely surprise. You do know that you have nothing to apologize for in your high school behavior – you were always friendly and treated me with respect, even if we did not become close friends.
A quick Google search has filled me in on the very broad outlines of your spiritual journey but I look forward to hearing more. It is interesting that you are at USC – I designed the acoustics for the Newman Recital Hall, the renovation of Bovard Auditorium, and the Schoenfeld Rehearsal Hall. It will be a pleasure to join you there for a meal and a nice long conversation.
As you may have noticed on my website, I stayed so long at my company that they recently made me president. I can’t say I enjoy management, but I’m better at it than I expected, and I still get to do the design projects that are my true love. Speaking of true love, last summer I was able to legally marry my husband, Gerardo Jimenez, not quite 27 years after our religious wedding ceremony. I cannot adequately express how meaningful that is to me.
Thank you for reaching out to me. It was a thoughtful and gracious act – two adjectives that I apply to you without the least sense of surprise or irony. Give my regards to Matt.
James (but Jim if you prefer it)
Revel in blessings
You might think I’m sharing this to highlight the dangers of religious intolerance or the redemptive value of confession, and certainly there are points to be made on both counts, but neither is the best part of the story, at least as far as I’m concerned.
No, the best part of the story is that somewhere in Minneapolis Jim Michaels is safe and secure, married to his true love, doing valuable work that delivers beautiful music to the ears of thousands of people all over the world, and doing it all with a kind and generous heart. He’s not bitter or angry, and he’s not alone. The best part for me is that, in a world filled with so much brokenness, Jim Michaels is and has been genuinely happy.
And just knowing that makes me happy!
I recently attended a presentation at USC’s film school, which featured one of Pixar’s top character animators giving a behind the scenes look at their latest movie with obvious delight. Unfortunately, nearly every student question boiled down to the same thing: How do we get what you have? Honestly, I think the animator’s proud mother and I were the only ones walked away truly satisfied – exalted even – by the experience, because in very different ways, his success felt like our own. By being thrilled for him we ended up thrilled with him as well.
Religious people often talk about transcendence, but making your own happiness from the happiness of others requires no supernatural power. On the contrary, for such a miracle you need nothing more than a trained will and imagination, both of which we can and should develop before we grow old. Because in the end, when the only future accessible to you belongs to other people, the only way to die happy will be to revel in the adventures still in store for those you leave behind.
Bart Campolo is an openly secular speaker, writer and community organizer who currently serves as the Humanist Chaplain at the University of Southern California.