Reflection by Liora

One of the first days Ben and I spent together, almost 11 years ago, was a day-long effort to catch a squirrel. Ben had a big, metal squirrel trap. And he knew from weeks of research that squirrels were suckers for peanut butter. We sat there for hours, watching the squirrels outsmart us, sneaking behind the cage to steal the peanut butter without getting stuck.


That same year, the year I met Ben, he was in the midst of leading a revolution.  The Rice University administration had shut down the student-run radio station without warning, and Ben, representing all that was good and true and indie, organized a mass protest against this authoritarian crackdown.


By the time Ben graduated that year, he had helped to save the radio station and to transform an often-apathetic student body. He had also managed to catch a squirrel, which he held up victoriously by its tail at his graduation celebration, much to everyone’s dismay and sanitation concerns.


In other words, Ben was 100% in his element.


I know that many of you have known that spirit, that one that leads revolutions and chases squirrels, and you have fallen in love with Ben, the way I did. And never stopped loving, the way I haven’t.


I also know, that whether you are religious or not, your love has taken the form of prayer over the past few weeks, as mine has. I’ve prayed with Ben’s family, with my family, and on my own. Jewish prayers, Catholic prayers, and some very desperate prayers.


Two weeks ago, standing with Ben’s dad at a morgue in Peru, sprinkling holy water on Ben’s body and saying goodbye, only one prayer came to me, and I repeated it over and over: “thank you. Thank you.”


I am so grateful for Ben’s life. That it overlapped for so long, and so intimately, with mine. The innumerable things that he taught me, directly and indirectly, all the ways that he showed love.


For me, loving Ben over the past decade has often been about letting go. We have not always been on the same continent, or in a committed relationship. And I have spent many hours worrying about his safety, on many mountains, through many travels.


But even when we let go, we were always in conversation, through thousands of emails and phone calls and letters. This conversation, I am realizing, does not end. I still have so much to learn from Ben, we all do—from the stories we will tell each other today and for the rest of our lives, from Ben’s prolific records of his thoughts and adventures, from our own experiences and reflections and dreams, forever shaped by the many ways we’ve already been changed by Ben.


I believe that Ben’s greatest strength, what allowed him to inspire us all, was his willingness to fail. This was a core value for him, a direct reflection of his deep faith. Ben was keenly aware of his own failings and limitations, and he was exceptionally willing to fight the inner struggle because he knew it was worth fighting.  He believed in humanity precisely because it is broken.

Because Ben was willing to struggle, to live at his internal and external edges, he understood more than most how beautiful life is. He saw that life was fleeting but also believed it was really as short or as long as you make it. Ben was deeply affected in his childhood by stories from people who said they had waited until it was too late, for whatever it was that mattered to them. Ben did not wait. He was always setting goals, always training, in all categories of his life. Ben practiced his religion in the cathedrals of mountains and church pews and backyard bbqs and rock concerts and overcrowded busses in foreign countries.


Ben never wanted to be a superhero because of his physical achievements. In fact, he went out of his way to understate them. If we idealize his achievements, we are misunderstanding Ben. In an email to me exactly a year ago, Ben wrote, “The external achievements only matter insofar as they help us realize our humanity and our relationship to the divine…we are really running a race against ourselves, to progress in becoming more human.”


Ben climbed mountains that we probably can’t climb, he took accidental road trips across Afghanistan, and he may have been the last person in his demographic to get a cellphone. So Ben sometimes felt like he was different from other people... but he was also a regular guy. He spent hours watching youtube videos. He always bought the same things at Trader Joe’s, mostly cheese. He loved geography quizzes, and he was pretty good at guessing the time. He always blew his nose in the sink. He could be incredibly shy.


What made Ben exceptional is something that is not beyond any of us.  It was his percentage effort, his willingness to put in, a clear manifestation of his faith. All of us can live this kind of truth.


When I let go of Ben last fall, I leaned heavily on the teachings of Thich Naht Hahn and his ordained students and clergy. This one in particular helped me to process the letting go part of loving Ben: “When we love someone, its not because we live next to that person that we love him. We love because we can see the beauty in that person and we learn to love in a way that lives inside us. We can see the sufferings and shortcomings not yet transformed in that person and we practice wholeheartedly in order to help transform those things for him. That is true love. We can continue that person.”

I am devastated by Ben’s death, my heart is broken again. but I am not in despair. On the contrary, I believe more. My faith is deeper. My plan for maintaining the light, to demonstrate how I understood him and the ideals he lived out, is to be less afraid. To live more fully in wonder. To be more like Ben by being more completely myself.


As much as Ben saw the brokenness of this world, he did not reject it. He believed very much in becoming more human, in returning to the essential nature of our humanity. This ancient wisdom recognizes how much we are all connected, how the barriers of our physical bodies are just illusions.


If we were all a bit more like Ben, if we knew what mattered to us and pursued those things relentlessly, if we protested things that are wrong and weren’t afraid to chase after joy, if we understood that the inner struggle is where the outer revolution begins, I don’t see how we couldn’t change the world.


Given at Ben’s Memorial Service on August 14, 2012: