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Witnessing the True Definition of Grace

Stephanie Koehler
Stephanie Koehler

I am a person with great appreciation for words.  I find myself carefully considering definitions and word usage – even in the most mundane and ordinary of communications.  I am acutely aware of new words and try to incorporate them into my vocabulary – both verbal and written.  But recently, it was a simple and common word that sparked a great deal of thought and consideration.

Webster’s dictionary defines the word — grace — as “a virtue coming from God” (n.) or the “disposition to or an act or instance of kindness, courtesy, or clemency” (v.).  I believe this story would accurately be described as both.

Recently, I joined an old friend and a group of his fraternity brothers who were back in the area celebrating a reunion at their national headquarters.  Nearly 20 years ago, these men had all worked together – but more importantly – the same man had hired them all.

Only knowing one person in the group — I was afforded a wonderful opportunity to objectively observe these friends who had come from a variety of states and vastly different circumstances.  There were lawyers, doctors, music executives, and businessmen.  There was even a deacon of the Catholic Church.  There were stories of college days; first jobs, wives and kids.  There was laughter about the details they remembered and questions about the memories that had faded with time.  There was the comfort that comes with a shared past.

As I listened carefully and watched each face — I couldn’t help but notice there was something else stringing these men together – something powerful and undeniable.   Something I couldn’t put my finger on.  So, when the crowd had thinned I asked a few questions of my own.  The story I heard stopped me in my tracks.

It all started when Sigma Nu fraternity hired their “field consultants” nearly 20 years ago.  For most of these young men, it was their first job out of college and for all of them, it meant “moving” to Southwest Virginia – home of the national headquarters.  In reality, their job meant long and grueling months on the road – a new city each day – leaving very little time to substantively connect with anyone.  Lexington became their anchor and their friendships grew based on shared experience. But more importantly, their boss became an important mentor — like a father.  His professional guidance, faith in their abilities and fostering of their talents clearly shaped the men they would become.  This one person had changed the trajectory of all their lives.  However, at the time, none of them could have imagined what lie ahead for him.

I am not a mental health expert – so I won’t even attempt to label the experience that befell their boss in later years.  Was it trauma and loss that triggered the breakdown or the breakdown that triggered a downward spiral?  Either way, this strong, powerful, articulate man slowly faded into a timid and desperate shell – unable to work and unable to face life.  Over the years, these brothers — scattered across many states – tried to help ease his burden and get him the help he needed – but the road was long and filled with frustration.  How can a person repay such a debt?  How do you make some one feel they matter?

Year after year, they encouraged him to participate in events, attend reunions and rejoin life.  Year after year, his desire to see them was crippled by his illness. They kept trying with no avail.  Until this year….

As plans were made for their annual meeting this year, they decided to pile into a Land Cruiser, driving from Oklahoma to Nebraska to Tennessee to Virginia – picking up another passenger with each state – including their beloved former boss.  For an entire weekend, they stepped outside themselves and vigilantly surrounded him with the love of family, the respect he had earned and the truth of his impact on their lives.

The remaining details of the trip are of no particular significance.  I am not suggesting he suddenly made – or will make — a miraculous recovery.  I am also not offering a commentary on the tragedy of mental illness or the circumstances that drive the strongest and most capable of people into the depths of despair.  The message is something far more basic to the human condition.  It’s about “an instance of kindness, courtesy, and clemency”.  It’s about the part of our human being that reflects something greater than ourselves.

This group of “brothers” had cared enough to persevere in their attempts to let this man know how much he meant to them – and it worked.  If only for a fleeting moment – this broken man knew he mattered and that the world had been impacted by his life.  For a few simple moments on a Saturday night in August, he knew these men were changed because their lives had intersected with his all those years ago.

For me…it was simple. I was witnessing the true definition of Grace.

As I drove out of town – I thought about the motto of their fraternity:  Love. Honor. Truth.

The founders would be proud.

By Stephanie Koehler
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  1. Stephanie’s articles always make me look that the world around me a little bit differently. This week’s article is no different except I think it is one of my favorites. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could all step back and recognize the grace around us? Thanks Stephanie for opening my eyes!

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