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The Greatest Gift
Vol 25: The Kindest Thing Anyone Has Ever Done For Me
I didn’t know what to expect when I posted my piece on failure. But over the past week, I had a huge outpouring of messages — some from close friends, others from people who I’ve never met.
Some told me about their similar struggles, others offered their appreciation, and a few gave me heartfelt encouragement and praise.
It is the type of kindness that makes you feel so grateful to be here. As I thought about it more, it reminded me of a question some of you may be very familiar with.
The Kindest Thing
What’s the kindest thing someone has ever done for you?
If you’re a podcast aficionado, you’ve probably heard that asked a number of times, and if you’re like me, you’ve probably thought about what your answer would be.
It’s one of those Really Hard Questions I like to write about, specifically ones that might not even be possible to answer. Some people can easily point to specific moments in their lives when acts of kindness were unequivocally exceptional, others have the fortune of choosing from many of them.
And unfortunately, others may feel that they have a far more limited sample set to choose from. Which is upsetting by itself, but especially because so many of the answers people give oftentimes come from seemingly small acts of kindness from people they may not even know that well. It’s an important reminder that everything we do matters, and that you can never know how something you do for someone can completely change their life.
I mention this because my life has been suffused with acts of kindness, and I feel it almost impossible to choose a specific moment — especially because there are so many different people that have acted in deep acts of selflessness for me, and while the magnitude may differ between them, in each case, the person doing the kindness was making a large effort. It seems silly to try to measure and rank it all.
But as I’ve gotten older there’s one thing I’ve realized that has unequivocally been the kindest thing someone’s ever done for me, and the craziest thing is that it wasn’t really done directly for me.
A Never Ending Nightmare
Imagine for a moment that you’re driving to pick up a loved one, it could be a sibling, parent, or best friend, from their home. Let’s say it’s your sister. In a few days it will be her birthday, and this year they’re especially excited because it’s going to be the start of a brand new chapter in their life.
The sun is out, the birds are singing, and the music is jamming.
And then you reach the top of the hill in front of your loved one’s house, and all you see are police lights lighting up the street.
You can’t really see their house, because there are ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks everywhere. The radio suddenly sounds silent, your heart drops, and you jump out of your car and run to the caution tape surrounding the house you’re supposed to be driving to.
Cops rush towards you, there’s confused shouting, and once you identify yourself, you hear four words:
“Your sister is dead.”
The driver in that story was my father, and 15 years ago he was traveling to my Aunt Ellen’s house to pick her up for Christmas. She was about to celebrate her 50th birthday with the rest of my family up in New England.
But that never happened because her husband killed her.
I cannot pretend to fathom what my father went through in those next few hours. She was bludgeoned to death, to the point where he had to identify her body.
I won’t go into more details about that day here because it’s horribly depressing. I’m woefully unequipped to put words to something so tragic. It’s a nightmare that never ends, and heartbreaking on so many levels.
But I can comment on what happened afterwards, because this is the part that my brothers and I experienced firsthand.
Every Great Reason
Ellen Gregory Robb was someone that made everyone else’s life better. All the people in her life immediately tell you that.
To go back to that question I opened the piece with — she was the person people said gave them the greatest act of kindness. And we’ve heard that again and again since.
Which was part of the reason why her death was so shocking and tormenting. She looked out for and took care of her friends, but especially her family. She was a mother-figure to many, and my father idolized her because she was the one who always made sure he was okay.
Her death, whenever that would be, would always be unpalatable for him, but to have what happened occur those 15 years ago… like I said, I can’t imagine the pain he, my father’s brother, and my cousin (Ellen’s daughter) was and still are in.
I mention this because in spite of all this pandemonium and heartbreak, my parents did something so simple, yet so special for my brothers and I, and I still can’t really grasp how they did it.
This all happened three days before Christmas. I don’t remember this, but my mother recently told me that I was in the car with her when my father called her to tell her what happened. She said I could sense something was wrong, but then I had to get out and go to an indoor soccer game. I was only 10, and my two brothers were even younger. My parents suddenly had to figure out a million different things, but chief among them was what they were going to tell us.
What would you have done?
I pose that question because it’s one of those salient examples where there’s no easy way ahead. It’s one of those times where nothing you’ve learned in school will help. You have to think through different options, and ultimately make a decision.
That’s what parenting is. An almost unending series of choices about how to mold, shape, and nurture someone’s life. I’m hard pressed to think of another responsibility as important as being a parent.
Ultimately my parents told us, though they spared us many of the details. Which some people didn’t agree with them on, but my parents made the decision together and stuck with it.
What is remarkable to me is that my parents still celebrated Christmas with us, and to me and my younger brothers, we went on with our lives largely unaware and unencumbered with the tempest swirling overhead. Even in the midst of a fierce, dark storm, they blocked away all the rain and made the holidays as happy as possible. They had every great reason to.
Tragedy to Triumph
When I look back at that part of my life, I barely remember the rain. I’ll always defend what my parents did, because they ultimately ensured that my brothers and I were safe, but also happy.
They also are quite happy today, even though this all happened. There are a few reasons for that, but one that cannot be overlooked is the fact that they decided to do something.
So many people let life just happen to them. They act like the world imposes its will on us, and that our only choice is to accept our fate. If that was true it wouldn’t be much of a choice!
One of the defining things about conversations around the Bad Things happening today is an overwhelming sense of accepted helplessness. I don’t get it. By all means feel bad about these Bad Things, but if you’re not happy then you should do something about it, otherwise you don’t really have much business complaining about it.
My parents, my father specifically, decided to do something. They created a foundation — Every Great Reason — immortalizing Ellen’s initials in the process. The purpose was to build a platform that teaches people about domestic violence, and also provides support to those who are in the process of leaving abusive relationships.
My family had no idea what Ellen was being subject to, and as we learned more about this plight, we knew that others needed to learn about it too.
That’s pretty admirable if you ask me, but my father didn’t stop there. He fought vigorously to change Pennsylvania laws so victims’ families can have stronger voices. After only 5 years, Ellen’s abuser was scheduled to be up for parole. My father didn’t let that happen. My uncle produced manipulative letters the abuser had recently sent to his daughter, and my father created a campaign to change the rules to ensure families can have actual input in the parole process.
I talk about this all the time on Embers, but everything around us was built by other people, who were no smarter or more special than us. It is a great platitude, but it’s not fully accurate. Few people have the will to reshape the laws of the universe, and those that do truly are special.
This story shows what it looks like in practice. In this case, the will of a single person was enough to change the way the world works. My father was definitively told “no” and he decided that was an answer he would never accept. So he championed new legislation and didn’t settle until it was signed into law. He Changed the Calculus — making the world better in the process.
My father has achieved plenty of other accomplishments through his acts of service, but there’s one defining arc across all of his work. He turned this terrible tragedy into a true triumph.
The other weekend I visited my grandparents for the first time since 2019, and it was really special. But on the way down, my family stopped at Penn State, the school my parents went to. We’ve done this before, but this time was different, because my father was getting an award.
That alone would be exciting, but it was surreal to see my father speaking at an event where Matt Rhule, head coach of the Carolina Panthers, was also being honored.
Sometimes it can be easy to forget how special your parents are, because they’re all that you know. That wasn’t the case here though. In fact, it shone radiantly true — that afternoon was a celebration of many special people, and my father’s award, Service to Society, encapsulated what he’s done with his time here.
I’ve always been proud of him, but this day changed my life. I saw him speak, as he has so many times, about how horrific this story is, and how pervasive domestic violence is. My father’s impassioned speech against the demonic evils of domestic violence was moving, so much so that Coach Rhule later commented on my father’s passion and purpose in his own speech later that day. But what changed my life wasn’t what my father said, it was what happened after he stopped speaking. As he walked down from the stage, something special happened.
I remember clapping, and then seeing commotion out of the corner of my eye. When I started looking around, I realized everyone was getting up. Everyone emerged from their seats to give a resounding applause.
I’ve seen standing applauses plenty of times in my life, but seeing it done for your father is a different experience entirely. It was like being run over by a freight train. This was the last time I cried. It was truly moving, and quite special.
This type of roaring applause confers an unparalleled sense of respect and admiration, and I got to see that done for my biggest role model, my Dad.
This was the kindest thing ever done for me, because it showed me what I wanted to do with my life. My Dad didn’t do any of this for awards or applause, he did it because he knew he could help change the world for the better. He felt an obligation to help others. And he did, and continues to do it again and again.
The Greatest Gift
This piece may not be very relevant for you, but I think it’s important because it illustrates how horrible this domestic violence epidemic is, but as importantly, how you can live your life making a difference to other people.
That’s what my Dad does. And sure, he’s been an amazing father for me and my family. But the acts of selflessness he so frequently exhibits are rare in the rest of the world, and have shown me how to live a life that leaves an impact.
For me, part of growing up has been relearning all the things my mother and father taught me. All the aphorisms they shared when I was a kid have reappeared in all sorts of ways, from books to podcasts. Reabsorbing this wisdom has been really interesting. Like most kids, as an act of childhood rebellion I’ve sometimes dismissed or discounted these ideas, but now that I’m older I’ve gotten to appreciate the embedded wisdom in everything from writing out what you want to accomplish in life to Controlling the Controllables.
It’s a true gift to be here, I have always believed that. But as I’ve grown older I’ve realized I have received an even rarer gift.
You can’t really proclaim you’re enlightened, but you can know if you’re directionally doing well. That’s how I feel. And I owe that to my parents.
My paternal Grandmother called me Bubbles as a baby, because I was always smiling and giggling. She probably would have been aghast to see me some days at 4:30 am in college when I had to bike across campus to get to a morning lift on time. I can assure you I was rarely smiling then! But even on those days I found life to be so fruitful. You get what you put in. Some of that is innate, but a bigger part has been seeing how my parents approach life.
I feel a little guilty posting this right before Mother’s Day, because I’m aware that the bigger part of this post is about my father. But my mother’s a hero too, because while my father was away doing different things with EGR, she was taking care of me and my brothers, while also juggling all the other responsibilities for the foundation. So while this may not fully feature my mother, she’s every bit involved in this.
I lived my youth with few barriers. My parents deserve all the credit for knowing when to eliminate obstacles, and knowing when to let some still sideline me, so that I could figure out how to get around them myself.
A lot of what I’ve written here doesn’t need to be fully laid out, my parents know how grateful I feel and how much they mean to me. And yet I think it’s still important to share this all, to recognize how both of them have worked so well together during all of this turbulence and still raised three successful kids.
One of the best compliments you can receive as a parent comes in the form of a question. “How did you raise your kids so well?” I say this because I’ve been standing next to my parents when other people have gone up to them to ask this. It must be a humbling thing to hear. I know it’s made me proud of them when I’ve heard it.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about all of this is that my father didn’t have his father growing up, and yet he’s the best father I could ever ask for. It shows you how much he loves being a dad. Just as my mother loves being a mom.
That is the best thing you can ever hope for: to have a loving family that gives you everything you need to succeed. I received that in spades, to the point now where I know how unique the hand I’ve been dealt is.
I got to live my life unencumbered by crises out of my control, and as I got older, I learned not only how to overcome obstacles, but also how to make your own dent in the universe, while still being an amazing parent.
Kids aren’t in the immediate future of my life, but once I have them, I know how I’ll raise them and be a role model for them. Because both my mother and father showed me what that looks like — it’s the truest illustration of selfless love I’ve experienced, and it’s the greatest gift any child could ever ask for.
1 in 3 women have been abused over the course of their life, and 1 in 5 men have.
Every 9 seconds, another person is struck down from domestic violence.
If you’d like to get involved, this is a great resource: Domestic Violence Awareness Project