The Incomparable Lessons of Benjamin Hersh
Updated: Dec 27, 2018
My cousin Ben died last week. He was 33.
We’re never really prepared for this kind of loss and we all sit with and process it differently. I got the call from my crying mother and quite literally was without words. Sitting with her in her pain seemed to quiet both my heart and mind. When we parted ways I messaged my wife and asked her to call me – a moment later I picked up the phone, breathed in deeply, and spoke the words, “Benny died this morning.” And with that, I broke down.
A couple days later I was on a plane to Milwaukee to attend his funeral service and burial. Just the day before, Ben’s sister and her husband had to fly back from a work trip in Australia. From near and far they came – some 200 people – to celebrate Ben’s exceptional life and share the joys and pains together. You see, Ben was a special kind of special, the inevitable product of the special family he was a part of.
Ben had severe cerebral palsy. He never walked a single step nor spoke a single word. His body made every part of life a challenge beyond my comprehension. Confined to a motorized wheel chair Ben required a constant kind of specialized care many parents would feel beyond their capacity – and rightfully so. But not Ben’s parents. My aunt and uncle saw this child as no less worthy of love and life than their other three. It came to them without question that he would have as full a life as possible. In this they succeeded beyond compare.
Ben lived all 33 years at home with family constantly by his side and enjoyed all the ups and downs that come with a loving family. He was loved deeply and wholly, he felt joy and excitement and accomplishment, and he experienced frustration and annoyance that only family can elicit. He was confined to a chair but not his home – Ben traveled around Milwaukee and beyond, volunteering locally and participating in family reunions and celebrations around the country. That is to say, his life was indeed full.
These past few days, from the news of his death to his funeral and burial to the lonely flight home and through a Christmas eve with my wife and her parents, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ben. It feels right for me to share some of the lessons Ben offered so many:
1) Optimism: Ben was the very definition of an optimist. Martin Seligman, the “Father of Positive Psychology,” discusses optimism through the prism of explanatory style. That is, how we explain life’s circumstances and experiences in reference to ourselves. In a nutshell, a pessimist believes they are a victim of life whereas an optimist believes they have a say in the life they live.
Ben had every right to complain. He was born with a condition that would limit his potential, eliminate most opportunities, and challenge him with every breath. Yet, in the 33 years I knew him I never once heard him complain. Not once! When Ben would use his computer speech device he would talk of the grand things to come – a girlfriend, marriage, a cruise for our next family reunion. Ben always believed great things were coming for not only him, but all those he loved and cared for.
2) Love: Ben loved deeply and fully. His family meant the world to him and he shared that love openly, honestly, and purely. At his funeral each of his parents and all three of his siblings gave a eulogy and I was touched by the consistent messages they all shared. Each of them expressed gratitude for how loved Ben made them feel.
And his love extended far beyond his immediate family. I lived in Milwaukee until Ben was 2 years old so most of his life I’ve lived far away. Some years I might see him only once – some years not at all. Yet, every time we were together his eyes lit up and his smile warmed the room when he saw me. And it wasn’t just me – he responded this way to all his aunts and uncles, cousins and friends, nieces and nephews, caretakers and acquaintances, even inmates at the county jail whom he sent letters of encouragement to. Ben’s heart had a capacity far beyond the confines of his body.
3) Balance: I study positive psychology and have co-founded a company based on its scientific findings. It’s a field dedicated to cultivating human flourishing, the “good life.” Some might suggest the “good life” is a life of happiness and joy, devoid of pain and suffering. I disagree and Ben’s death only strengthens my resolve. For me the “good life” is a full life in which we deeply experience all that makes us human.
Loss is not a feeling we seek. It’s closely related to pain and elicits a sadness that, in the moment, may feel untenable. When we lose a loved one the pain only focuses. The loss of a child is beyond my comprehension. What I saw in my aunt and uncle, during Ben’s funeral, was as raw a hurt as I’ve ever witnessed. If that’s what I felt just being with them I cannot imagine the depths it approached within them.
Yet, a part of me couldn’t help but feel warmth in the pain. For me, the sadness and suffering those left behind feel from Ben’s death is a tangible, physical representation of the love he brought to our world. Loss and love are two sides of the very same coin.
Robust research in positive psychology is uncovering the value of what we might call “negative” emotions. What we are finding is that seeking only “good” or “positive” emotions is, perhaps counter-intuitively, at best abnormal, at worst destructive. All gardens have weeds – try and eliminate them all and we’ll forget to cultivate what we were trying to grow in the first place. I think Ben knew this and lived it. In doing so, he offered so much good to so many of us.
I don’t remember many of the things Ben said to me but I will never forget how good it felt to be around him. I didn’t spend enough time with him or give enough of myself to Ben but I never once felt he loved me any less for it. Along with so many others, I’ll miss him for the rest of my days and feel the deepest sense of gratitude for having had him in my life.
Thank you, Ben, for being such a good teacher. I love you.
- Written by Josh Vaisman