Whether we fight against it or embrace it head on, we all have a profound relationship with death. It’s the great mystery we are constantly faced with; our gateway into the great unknown.
It’s easy to avoid contemplating death until someone close to you passes away. A few days ago the world grieved the loss of renowned scientist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking, may he rest in peace.
At the same time I was forced to confront the loss of a very good friend of mine, Ben Leske. Ben was 37 years old and succumbed to a six year struggle with brain cancer.
Right now I’m dealing with the grief of losing someone so special in my life, and the guilt of not being around enough in his final years. The guilt is compounded by my regret at not being able to spend more time with someone who will always be a true inspiration in my life.
As I think about Ben, I feel I have a lot more to learn from him.
We often lionize “heroes” in society, the people who do things on a world stage, who create products or innovations or movements that are known by millions of people.
Many of these people are important and deserve our consideration. Yet there are countless more people living a life of kindness, compassion and integrity who aren’t as well known and yet have made a major impact in people’s lives.
Ben is one such person. He impacted me enormously, as well as practically anyone who interacted with him.
A few hours ago I was at his memorial at St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne and there was hardly a seat left, and it seemed not a single dry eye.
The reason Ben Leske is such a hero of mine is that he lived a life of authenticity.
Being “authentic” has become an unfortunate buzzword, along with “vulnerability”. These words have become so popular that people nowadays try fit in with a conception of what they think the word means.
The problem is that people think about “authenticity” first, and then their behavior follows. Yet your actions can only be labeled as authentic after they happen. You can’t be motivated by authenticity and then try to act accordingly. It just needs to be the natural result of living a life true to yourself.
When I reflect on the final years of my good friend Ben Leske’s life, I can describe him as a deeply honest human being who lived with authenticity.
We first met in 2005 studying international relations at the Australian National University. He was an extraordinarily intelligent man. I marveled at his broad knowledge of history and his ability to integrate that with the complicated theories of international politics we were learning at the time.
Many other people use their intelligence as a weapon. Not Ben Leske. He was a gentle giant, both mentally and physically. He was always humble yet confident, kind but direct when needed. He seemed to leave everyone that crossed his path better off.
Yet during these days when we met, Leske was not being completely honest with himself. He was pursuing a career in diplomacy while his true passion was classical music. He was also gay and hadn’t come out to anyone in his life.
Fast forward to 2018 and I can tell you that Ben Leske is my hero. He changed his career, becoming a choral conductor and community music facilitator, bringing people together around the magic of music. Changing career was very difficult; it’s tough building a professional life in classical music.
Check out Ben’s music above. He conducted this in 2001.
Ben also married the love of his life, Khang Chiem, last month in the chapel of the palliative care hospice. Australia’s recent change in marriage laws made his marriage to Khang possible.
It always looks easy from the outside seeing people go through this kind of change, yet I know Ben struggled reconciling his own desires with people’s expectations of him. He wasn’t perfect, and never professed to be.
Yet he took powerful steps forward to do what he thought was right and live a life of integrity. He wasn’t motivated by what other people thought of him. He found a connection to a moral compass deep inside himself. Now that we have the chance to reflect on the life he lived, I can see that it was a deeply authentic life.
Ben struggled with a particularly malicious form of cancer over the last six years. Yet he didn’t run away from the struggle. He embraced it. As he wrote:
“Many things and many wonderful kind people helped me along this journey. I remember one surprising, inspiring moment in particular when I read with new eyes Michael Leunig’s wise little poem about grief and loss: Let it go; Let it out; Let it all unravel. Let it free; and it can be; a path on which to travel.”
Ben’s memorial was a chance to reflect on his life. I want to share five insights.
1) Grief is a reminder of the depth of our love
When you’re sitting in a memorial, there’s no escape. I don’t mean running out the back door (though at times I felt the urge). I mean there’s no escaping the emotions you’re feeling. Every new speech reminds you of your loss. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult today was for Ben’s husband and family.
Yet the grief we feel at the loss of a loved one isn’t something to avoid. It’s a powerful reminder of the depth of love we’re capable of feeling.
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt an onset of emotions like this. It’s reminded me that there are very special people in my life right now, and I want to spend more time with them.
2) Joy, happiness, sadness and heartbreak is what makes life worth living
We often try to do things that result in joy and happiness while avoiding things that result in sadness and heartbreak.
Yet sadness and heartbreak are the swords that crack open your idea of reality and let new ideas come through.
I can feel this right now. I feel heartbroken at the loss of my friend. Yet this broken heart is resulting in different kind of awareness at what matters in my life. It’s refocusing me.
It’s tragic to lose Ben at such a young age. But there is wisdom to come from his struggle.
As Ben said:
“My cancer diagnosis is felt most by those closest to me, and I feel it is sometimes even harder for immediate family and partners than for the patient. The experiences of surgery and recovery have brought my family and partner (the centre of my family) much closer together and deepened and strengthened our relationships with one another.”
3) Embrace your “finite” moment on this planet
Death is the greatest teacher, and it’s a lesson Ben had many years to embrace. Here’s what he said:
“My diagnosis sharpened my view of the things that matter and taught me to live life fully and with equanimity. With the help of family and close friends I had confronted and found peace in my mortality.”
“Through meditation and reflection I learned to accept and embrace my finite ‘moment’ on this planet.”
4) Be gentle on others, be gentle on yourself
Ben’s husband, Khang, shared with us all the advice he knows Ben would give him in dealing with his death.
The advice: “be gentle on others, be gentle on yourself.”
As Khang said, this is great advice for all of us.
I’m know that I’m often too hard on myself. I’m much harder on myself than I am on other people. Why is that? It’s time to be my own best friend.
5) Sing to the tune of life
What struck me at the memorial is that Ben didn’t only have a passion for music. He also shared his passion with others, inspiring them to use music in powerful ways.
Whenever Ben would sit inside the MRI to find out the latest state of his brain cancer, he would sing. When he had a decision to make, he would sing.
And when the great unknown, the great white light, was approaching, it’s a fair bet that Ben was singing to himself.
Life is always changing. There’s always movement. There’s always a struggle.
Will you sing to the tune of life? What’s your song? Will you sing even when the chips are down?
Brain cancer kills more children than any other disease. Help fund the cure by supporting “Cure Brain Cancer Foundation”. You can donate here.