“To love another person is to see the face of God.” –Victor Hugo
Read those words again, because they absolutely changed my life. This is both the most valuable and the most painful lesson I ever learned.
These are words that led me to see the world in a radically new light. They showed me that our relationships, with our friends, with our families, with all our loved ones, are the most beautiful, meaningful aspects of our lives. Yet far too often, we fail to realize this. We are given the greatest of gifts and allow it to slowly wither away. We get so caught up in all our own ambitions and worries, that we lose sight of what should always be most precious to us. It is said that love is blind, but I think it’s really us who are blind towards love. We fail to see all the splendor in our relationships, we fail to see the greatness in every single person around us, we fail to see the powerful and profound depths of love. But we cannot afford to do this. Because to fail at this, is to fail at our greatest task. Unfortunately, during the last few years of my life, I most definitely failed. This is a lesson I learned only after a long time, and with much pain.
I had just been accepted into Harvard and elated by this news, I decided it would be nice to share the news of my success with my elementary school teachers. These were people who had been absolutely vital in my life. They had provided a sense of belonging for me and my family at a time when this country, still foreign to us, felt cold and indifferent, and had served as irreplaceable guides for me throughout my childhood. And although this was the place where I’d gotten my start, that had set me on the right path, I hadn’t stopped by in over eight years. But it’s not that I hadn’t wanted to. Rather, I’d been so busy participating in competitions, studying for exams, and preparing myself for college that I simply hadn’t been able to find the time. But despite this fact, for some reason I went back expecting everything to be the same, for my elementary school to be as if I’d never left. I was completely wrong. The buildings were all still there, the jungle-gym was still the garish colors I remembered, and even the old leaky drinking fountain was right where I’d left it – but I went back a total stranger.
When my teachers saw me, it took them a little while to remember me, and this absolutely floored me. How could people who had been so important to me, who had played such a central role in my life, forget about me? But that was a foolish thought, for it was I who had forgotten them, not the other way around. Indeed, who could blame them for not remembering me after so long? I hadn’t kept in touch. I hadn’t called or even written a small note of appreciation. I had done nothing to keep these relationships alive. Although I admired my teachers dearly and felt so thankful to have had them in my life, I had never told them any of this. They had no idea what they meant to me. Nevertheless, my teachers were absolutely great. They congratulated me for everything I’d done and expressed ardent pride. Moreover, I could see their sincerity and understood that they really cared. But that didn’t dilute the pain, it only heightened it. I had let these people who were so wonderful and so dear to me just slip away.
So as I walked away from the place where I’d spent my entire childhood, I suddenly came to a stop, and as I stood there, at that moment, I felt life finally slowing down. All the noise and distractions of the past few years that had just been roaring away, drowning out everything else in a furious tempest of stress and work, just faded off into a tranquil silence. And for the first time – for the very first time – I saw my life, I saw myself, who I was and what I’d done. I could see everything I’d accomplished and everything I’d sacrificed. And at that moment I finally realized what should have been so obvious to me from the very beginning: I’d been so caught up in excelling academically, in getting into one college or another, in being number one, that ultimately, I’d lost sight of what truly mattered. Everything that should’ve been most meaningful to me, that I should’ve held most dear, I had completely disregarded. I had allowed for my own ambitions to drive me away from those I loved. And at that moment, holding my Harvard acceptance letter, I felt terribly alone. I felt as if all along I’d been some foolish actor on stage, frantically dancing away, completely absorbed in my own world and failing to realize that the people I was trying so hard to impress, were the very people I was losing. Here with arms wide open were all these people who loved me, all these people who took pride in my accomplishments and joy in my successes, and for the past eight years of my life, I had completely ignored them. And the worst part, these weren’t the only people I’d ignored. My friends, my family, everyone I ever knew, had always taken second place to me.
Thus, my greatest mistake has been to take my relationships for granted. And now, I have to live knowing that I could’ve done something in all of those relationships – with my teachers, my friends and my family – but that I instead chose to focus on myself. I’ve become so focused on succeeding academically, that I’ve lost so much. I haven’t given myself the opportunity – or the time – to love. My family and friends have always been extremely supportive. And I’ve always told myself that by working hard in school and making them proud, I’ve done enough. But that’s absolutely wrong. My responsibility isn’t to be a scholar. First and foremost, it is to be a son, a friend, a brother.
The problem is that although I feel this way, I don’t always show this – to be honest, I probably never show this. So I’m not the son my parents deserve, I’m not the friend others need, and I’m definitely not the brother I should be. And what are my grades and awards, my flimsy certificates and gilded trophies, when I’m failing everyone I love? That’s why love requires action. Without action, love is no more than a thought. It is completely and painfully nonexistent. And I think we all face this problem. Sometimes, we want to express our love, but feel awkward or embarrassed. We feel that somehow, expressing our love shows some kind of weakness or vulnerability on our part. But ultimately, such fears are utterly trivial. What’s more, they’re just wrong. Love is worth a little embarrassment, a little awkwardness, it’s worth much, much more than that – and by closing ourselves off to love, we are injuring ourselves far more deeply than any sneer or slander could ever do. I’ve felt this pain and it’s absolutely terrible, and that’s why at this moment, I ask you to look into your own life, to ask yourself where you’ve failed to take the time to talk to a friend, where you’ve failed to make a caring gesture, where you’ve failed to live a life of love in action – and I implore that you strive to change it, that you have the courage and will to love and to show your love. Because the rewards of love are endless and the consequences of silence terrible.
So let’s promise – right now – to never forget and to always see that “to love another person is to see the face of God”. Those are the words that changed my life, and they are words that can change the world.