Brigitte Zimmerman Maintaining the Light

I knew Ben for only eight months, but he had an immense impact on my life. I've only been realizing it and processing it fully since he left this earth. I learned (am still learning) so much from him about how to live, how to listen, how to take an interest in others in a meaningful way, and about a myriad of more specific topics. As many people have noted in their memories of Ben, he was interested in everything and was capable of having meaningful conversation at any hour of the day, about any topic. Here are some reflections on Ben and my time with him, with some thoughts (by no means complete) on how I want to maintain the light in honor of Ben.

Ben was deeply passionate and intense, completely living his life every day, without a moment wasted. In an email to me a few days after we met, he said, “I am definitely from a school of excess, extremism and going big on most things. Sometimes this extremism manifests itself as really moderate--usually when there are 2 polarized points and I take an uncommon middle ground. Like in a lot of politics… If you wanna do adventurous stuff, this is good news. It's--fortunately or not-- how my life is at its best. 1/0 energy and recover. every day, every week-- try to soak up as much life as I can without getting overwhelmed.”  I thought his comment about politics was humorous at the time, but I think it is even more humorous now that I have had many intense discussions with Ben about politics in which he definitely did not come across as moderate. In fact, he most often came across as an anarchist. As with most subjects, Ben had spent a lot more time thinking about political philosophy than I have, and I learned a lot from him about politics specifically and about absorbing information on a topic generally. He took bits of information and processed them until they were either integrated into his worldview or they had changed his worldview. I hope to be more thoughtful in a similar way. In the same email shortly after we met, Ben asked me to go on a road trip to a concert in LA, only the second time we hung out. Ben’s excitement for everything, his passion for adventure, was incredibly contagious, and I only hope I can carry it forward as I maintain the light. I am not naturally as adventurous as Ben, so I hope in moments of hesitation he will inspire me.

Although Ben was serious about a lot of things, it was refreshing that he still never took himself too seriously. He was always willing to admit he was not thinking clearly and so his point didn’t make any sense. He was always smiling and seemingly carefree. He didn’t care about how he came across to strangers, and instead trusted that once they got to know him they would like him just fine. One day, I showed up to meet Ben, and after spending about 15 minutes together, he said, “I’m sad you didn’t notice.” I said, completely confused, “Notice what?” He said, “I dressed up to see you.” I looked at what he was wearing more closely: torn jeans, flip flops and a black graphic hoodie. I said, “What part of what you’re wearing constitutes dressed up?” He said, “Well, I’m not wearing climbing pants.” He had his own perspective, and he didn’t make any apologies for who he was or how he came across. He was completely unencumbered by others’ standards, especially regarding appearances. I began to feel more unencumbered as well the more I hung out with him.

Ben was the first person I've met whose approach to religion and faith I wanted to completely emulate in every way, though he is much more extroverted than I am and I will never be able to be such a pivotal member of a faith community as he was. He had the perfect balance of fervent faith and openness to ideas, and it was that combination that initially drew me to him. I hope to use Ben as an inspiration to learn more about my faith and the faith of others, and to become more involved in my faith community.

Beyond many enriching conversations, I have several other special memories of Ben. My sister came into town this spring, and at the time she was hosting two foreign exchange students: from France and Germany. They wanted to learn how to surf, and Ben taught them one cold morning at 6 AM, after I’d explained the situation and asked him to help only the night before. He was wonderful about it, and both girls cite that experience as the most fun they had their entire year in the US. Ben also taught me how to rock climb. I wasn’t (am not) good, but he was very reassuring and encouraging. It was both refreshingly honest and genuinely caring when he admitted that climbing with me was boring for him, and that he really only did it because he cared about me. Although in many ways I hate climbing after what happened to Ben, I am sure I’ll continue doing it at some point. I know he’d encourage me to keep trying if he were here. I guess I share these particular stories with you because Ben often mentioned how he wasn’t a good teacher, and how he found it challenging to train someone in something he found so simple. But I found that teaching was actually one of his strengths, and I am so grateful for the times he attempted it with me.

I have thoughts of Ben all the time. I carry around a card I wrote for Ben when I was in Malawi this summer, written after he’d gone missing but before he was found. The last thing he’d said to me was, “Write one or many postcards!” and I am so sad we didn’t exchange any before it was too late. Drawing on Ben’s inspiration, I want to be more thoughtful about keeping in touch with people.

Engaging people in conversation is another thing I learned from Ben, and another way I hope to maintain the light. Just this morning I met an artist who paints modern depictions of religious stories, and I thought of how Ben would find that interesting and would have gladly talked to this man, an immigrant from Russia, for hours.

Finally, Ben absolutely loved the outdoors, more than anyone I’ve ever met. One of our first conversations was about the link between natural beauty and faith. After the conversation, he followed up in an email (a very common practice for Ben – he often sent lengthy, thoughtful emails only a few hours after lengthy, thoughtful conversations): “’I feel incredulous that there are people who see the ocean and do not believe in God,’ said you. I also feel that way. rustic oceans in particular, are the most beautiful. but also mountains. If I remember correctly cs lewis for one, and quote a few other catholic theologians also appeal to the fingerprint of God in nature.” Another day, he wrote, “I just returned for a run on blacks beach. today it was immensely beautiful, extremely cloudy, but light enough to see occasional blue sky filtering through the textured gray, reflected through the shallow water washing up as the tide. rare conditions. if we are documenting moments when we feel blessed, that was one. i do not think there is a better feeling.” The day I found out they found Ben’s body, I was on safari in Malawi. I watched the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen that night (photo above), sitting in a vast grassland with wild animals around and good friends by my side. It sounds like a lot of Ben’s friends and family felt this way and had a similar experience that night, but I nonetheless felt like he was watching the sunset with me that night, saying goodbye in his own extreme, spectacular, poignant way. Watching sunsets and appreciating the great outdoors more than I used to will definitely be the final way I maintain the light.

In just the past few months, five friends of mine have died, three of them under 35. It could be coincidence, but I don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t know what the universe is trying to tell me, but I know there’s a message. To start in deciphering the message, I’ve reflected on what unifies these five people, and I’ve come up with this: All of them prioritized human relationships over achievement. All of them were incredibly smart and managed to translate their intelligence into significant contributions to the world. Yet, when you talked with them one-on-one, all five of these people had a deep sense of humility, and all preferred to bolster others rather than promote themselves. All five of these people were superb conversationalists, partially because of their genuine interest in many topics, and partially because of their ability to draw out others in the conversation. In brief, all five of them had incredible power to influence and to achieve, and all five of them used this power to make others’ lives better. I hope to emulate all of them.