Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Angels On Our Shoulders

"For he hath given his angels charge over thee; to keep thee in all thy ways."
--Psalm 91:11

As many of you know, I am a huge South Carolina Gamecocks fan. I'll admit I am borderline fanatic - but it was something I was raised with and about which I do not apologize.

The last six months have been very emotional for the Gamecock Nation, as we were inspired by our National Championship baseball team, and then, just last weekend, witness to a stunning upset of then-ranked #1 Alabama in football. These have surely been heady days to bleed the Garnet and Black.

But underneath these tremendous victories lie two unrelated but very important events that I would like to focus on: the deaths of Baylor Teal and Kenny McKinley.

For most of those who don't eat and breathe Gamecock sports, neither of these names are likely familiar. But for those of us who avidly follow Gamecock sports, these names evoke a profound sense of loss and hope, of tragedy and inspiration. Kenny and Baylor were taken from us much too soon, but they both loom large in the minds of Carolina faithful.

I bring this up because I was in Columbia this past weekend as USC defeated a number 1-ranked football team for the first time in school history. Prior to the game there was a moment of silence in honor of McKinley, who, as a former USC player and team captain, was a fan favorite long after his departure for the NFL. Several times during the game I found myself thinking of him, wishing he were there in Williams Brice stadium to watch his beloved Gamecocks do something he never had. But it occured to me at some point that of course he was there, resting on the shoulders of each of us.

Judaism has a rich tradition of honoring those who came before us - we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, so to speak. But the idea that the memory of those recently lost can somehow serve to inspire isn't necessarily a Jewish one; in fact, it's as much a cinematic device as anything else. But I think there is a powerful lesson to be learned from the concept of taking inspiration from those we most admire.

As we navigate this life, through the heights and valleys of our day to day existence, it's important to remember and embrace those who have left an indelible imprint on who we are. Whether it's our parents, our siblings, best friends, our life partners, or even our children, we are products of the myriad elements that touch our lives, whether we like it or even recognize it.

Most times, it isn't something we consciously think about - it simply happens, as if someone switched on our internal auto-pilots, set a course and let us go. But from time to time, when challenges arise that seem insurmountable, we often turn to specific people whose unique character traits exemplified what is needed or desired most at that particular moment. It may be strength, or courage, or even just a sunny disposition, that at that moment will carry us through our toughest trials.

I used to think it was cliche, even cheesy, for athletes (or athletic wannabes) to dedicate a game, or a season, or even a moment, to the memory of one who was lost too soon. But since the loss of my mother six years ago (blessed be her memory), I find myself more and more often looking to those people in my life - dead and living - who embody the very things I aspire to. Why should I begrudge more public figures the right - even the blessing - of looking for the same strength, the same courage, to overcome their own personal challenges?

I can't say that there are little people with wings whispering into my ear as I go through life - but I can say that in my darkest depths and in my happiest heights, I believe the memory of those who mean most to me are a constant presence, guiding me down this path I walk, and I know I am surrounded by their love.