His name was Ted.
During a family vacation in Savannah many years ago, I struck up a conversation with him around a hotel swimming pool.
I was reading a Dickens novel as my daughters merrily splashed around in the pool. The young, bespectacled thirty-something, obviously personable and highly intelligent, had approached me and asked what I was reading. My mention of Dickens prompted an animated conversation. He probably sized me up as a kindred spirit: a thoughtful, sensitive bookworm like himself.
After a long conversation about books and movies, the discussion veered onto the larger question of life and purpose. His life was one fraught with sadness and hardship, moving across the country with a mother who had married multiple times. Much of his emotional capital growing up was spent dealing with a cast of intractably difficult stepfathers.
He had started out on the West Coast and ended up in Atlanta during his teenage years. A Jew who identified with the cultural aspects of Judaism but held no formal belief, he stressed what a challenge it was living in the South, always contending with overzealous evangelical Christians hectoring him about his lost soul and his need to embrace the true, consummated faith.
He had endured a long struggle with drugs, an addiction that weighed like an anchor on his early life’s fortunes. One night, a few years after high school, while wondering around stoned in an Atlanta-area mall, he had a random encounter with a high school classmate.
“Well, you’re exactly where I’d expected you’d be after high school — stoned out of your mind!” the classmate observed.
This heartless observation marked a turning point in his life. He weaned himself off marijuana, got a job, and worked his way through the first two years of community college. An engaged instructor, who took note of his abilities, secured scholarships for him to attend a regional liberal arts college.
He graduated, got a steady job in the IT industry, married. He invested his free time in mastering several musical instruments and ancient languages, including Sanskrit.
And here’s the interesting part to me: He believed that he was a recipient of grace — not grace from some benevolent God from on high as we Protestant Christians understand it — but grace from fellow human beings who had cared, who had discerned his special qualities and guided him through the darkest chapters of his life.
Ted exuded grace — a trait apparent in the first 30 minutes or so in our conversation. He smiled constantly. He was open to any new insight and freely shared his own. He listened intently, expressing gratitude for insights he hadn’t considered, facts he didn’t know. I felt that I was in the presence of an unusually well-integrated human being.
I thought about this remarkable individual reading one of David Brooks’ recent columns: “The Structure of Gratitude.”
As Brooks observes, most of us express gratitude from time to time, but there are truly singular people who express, if not exude, gratitude dispositionally — “they seem thankful practically all the time.”
People who are dispositioned to express gratitude — who exude grace as Ted did — tend to feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude to parents, teachers and other mentors who played indispensable roles in the formation of their character and personhood. Their sense of gratitude assumes a kind of spiritual quality so overpowering that they feel compelled to pay it forward to others.
Ted and I ended up talking till three or four in the morning. I was in my late forties at the time. My last words to him were something along the lines of “Use your tremendous gifts to the fullest. Life is damnably short — I’m just beginning to realize this — if you have some singular plan for your life, act on it. Don’t let go of it — act on it!”
We shook hands and parted.
For the rest of my life, I will always feel a deep sense of gratitude to Ted. He taught me that grace was not something handed down from on high but a gift freely given, sometimes out of the blue by people, sometimes ordinary people who are often not even aware that they are giving away anything of value. Ted even expressed gratitude to the classmate whose callous remark turned his life around.
Almost a decade has passed since that encounter. But I have no doubt that Ted is going through life with a big smile, spreading grace to everyone within reach.