If not for wonder
If not for reverence
If not for love
Why have we come here?
My sister and her husband had to endure the worst nightmare that any parent can imagine, the death of one’s child. Christopher was my 22 year old nephew when he died suddenly of heart failure. The tragedy was obviously a jolt that rocked the family, and Christopher’s community of friends. When tragedy strikes, you can’t help but reflect and be more consciously grateful for your friends and family – especially your kids. I used to think when my kids were growing up there were few generational differences between us. At least, not as big a chasm as my father and I. As a parent, we also want to think that we’re leaving a positive imprint, or legacy for our kids. We aren’t really thinking that our kids are forming their own. The important question Raffi presents is why have we come here? To be remembered by what we have accomplished? or by who we have become?
Not long before Christopher’s passing, I went as a chaperone to Italy with my daughter Margaret (just a couple of years younger than Christopher) on a high school trip. It was on this trip that I started giving legacy more attention. You can’t really help it when you’re in a place like Italy. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I had never before been really conscious of the legacy the Italians and Romans had on our daily lives – from the food we eat, to the scientific discoveries, to the breathtaking art and architecture. This personal awakening got me thinking about what conditions must have existed for the genius of Michelangelo, Raphael, Dante, Galileo and Leonardo da Vinci among many others in the Renaissance to emerge.
The conditions could not have been easy. The un-kept and un-social Michelangelo was constantly in conflict with the Pope while painting the Sistine Chapel. His rival Leonardo da Vinci continuously created controversy in the church with his art and his “inappropriate” behavior. Galileo rocked the Catholic Church by insisting the world was not the centre of the universe and was persecuted for it. One thing was common. They rocked the boat big time. They did not conform to authority. They showed us that the very act of discovery implies questioning what you already know and separating yourself from conventional thought. What exactly would happen when one sailed perpendicular to the shore? No one knew for sure until Christopher Columbus tried it.
I was compelled to think about who is sailing perpendicular to shore in our times? Will the boomer generation who has not been able to unlearn quickly enough listen to those with less experience? Where does our collective wisdom lie? No doubt, we could use remarkably brilliant minds that rock the boat, who share their knowledge or their genius without first considering their “cut of the proceeds”. It might imply though that I need to be as brilliant as da Vinci in order to have an impact in this world. Not so. It was very evident to me that remarkable ingenuity existed everywhere – from the creation of cement which we cannot match in quality today to the transportation of vast amounts of clean drinking water.
On our final full day in Rome, our group agreed to meet at the Piazza di Spagna before breaking off into smaller groups for personal discovery (or shopping for some). I got to the Spanish Steps a bit early to give my throbbing feet a rest. It was a beautiful day, and with the magnificent view of the “Holy City” of Rome in front of me, I reflected on the bustle of activity. I looked around and noticed youth all around the large Piazza. The contrast of that youthful energy with the ancient surroundings was not lost on me. I wondered how many millions of people would had gathered on the Spanish Steps with their future ahead of them like Margaret’s class.
Our young people are looked upon by many in the boomer generation as lazy, lacking in ambition and apathetic to history and the big issues out there. As our 70 year old guide Alfonzo took us through Pompeii – I can tell you these kids were anything but despondent. We misconstrue a lack of ambition with the rejection of institutions and corporate life that young people see creating an “unholy” mess that they will be left to clean up. They are the ones raising their voices, rocking the boat, trying to stir the rest of us from our complacency, as older generations repeat what the Roman Empire did to themselves. I wonder if the Michelangelos of our day will be the ones who show us how to save us from ourselves.
Margaret’s classmates started to converge around the fountain at the bottom of the steps and we started taking many playful group photos. I didn’t realize it until later but the fountain, La Barcaccia created by Bernini in 1629, is in the shape of a boat. Somewhere in that crowd, perhaps around this fountain, there are future leaders that will rock the boat like those Italian masters and challenge dominant institutions and their authoritarian leaders to help change the fortune of our time. Perhaps the legacy of our younger generation will be more about who they became, instead of what they have done.
That hope was present at Christopher’s funeral. I found it interesting how much easier it seemed for his generation to grieve openly and to express and articulate their feelings so well. My generation did very well at maintaining our composure. The impact Christopher had on the people who knew him, especially the youth who filled the chapel, was clear. It has been many years now since that dreadful day, and the Italian eatery he was a cook at, still honours him every year with a fundraising event that has raised over $25,000 for the University of Ottawa’s Heart Institute. No small irony, Christopher’s dream was to be a cardiologist. He was however, an over-educated quick-witted cook who filled many hearts with much love, laughter and companionship. The simple truth is, Christopher had been a cardiologist all along – and to those youth who knew him, it is a legacy no less important than Michelangelo’s.
July 12, 1984 – January 24, 2007