An Irishman I knew a little died recently and I went to his funeral. Well, there was a little more than that to it.
He wasn't someone that I knew well, but the little I did know, the little I had seen, made me realize that he had been a very kind man. It was a simple decision to join the other mourners and pay my respects.
The funeral was held in a big church in lower Manhattan. I'm being deliberately vague about the details. When he was alive he was the soul of discretion, so I will try to honor him by being likewise.
In life, I had found him rather mysterious if I'm being honest. He often attended the big Irish events where I would see him make concerted efforts to include people who had arrived late or alone or who looked like they were unsure of their welcome.
He had a special talent for friendship and putting people at ease. He had no airs about him at all. As soon as he started talking you would find yourself firmly deciding that you liked him. It was a gift he had. I admired him for that.
But I found him mysterious too. Truly kind people are so few and far between that when you meet one, you tend to be a bit awed. It's an event in a way. It's something so unusual that it's worth remarking on, like the return of a hundred-year comet or an Irish month without rain, say. This man was truly kind. It stopped me in my tracks.
Philosophers prefer to address themselves to the problem of evil. Where does it come from? What happens when people - or nations - let evil take over their lives? I have never really been all that interested in evil as a debate myself. I think that's probably because of its sheer banality. I don't think that it takes very much imagination to be bad. As Twitter daily reminds us, I don't think it even takes much effort.
The worst people I have ever met have also always been the least empathetic and least imaginative. They don't try to be bad in other words, they simply are. It's not a particularly interesting thing. They're not interesting. Being bad turns out to be just another fact about them, like having blue eyes or black hair. So what?
No, what fascinates me, what truly makes me wonder, is kindness. Sometimes you can carry the memory of a great kindness someone did for you through your whole life, where the memory can still light you up in dark times, reminding you that on one day at least you met someone good in the world who did a very good thing.
Irish people can be so kind that it can take your breath away. This man was. He was kind on the regular. His every effort was to include, not exclude. He knew the cold sting of exclusion so he worked to ensure that others did not. I didn't mention it yet, but this man was gay. He would sidle up to me at certain Irish events and say out of the corner of his mouth, “I'm as welcome as a skunk at a lawn party here, but I don't let that stop me.”
He used to make me laugh. Being gay he was used to being relegated and sidelined. But he didn't marinade in bitterness about other people's prejudice or ignorance, he took action instead. Every time I saw him I felt better about the world. That man, my aunts would say, is a tonic.
The priest at his funeral was very old school and conservative. He was tall and thin and middle-aged and visibly unhappy looking, as though he had never known love or peace. When he climbed the steps to the pulpit my heart sank just at the sight of him. Here we go, I thought.
Gay people are victimized many times over by the world's main religions. First, they menace and mark us before we reach maturity, bluntly suggesting our sins are somehow greater than most other peoples. Then, after a lifetime of this kind of victimization, they separate us out in the afterlife too.
The Irish man that I knew had passed on so he was no longer able to answer for himself. That allowed the priest to give a cold sermon that suggested he would have to atone for his many sins in Purgatory. His relatives sat in the pews listening to all this and didn't take exception to it.
I did, though. I was appalled. I listened as this laconic unsmiling priest who did not know the man he was speaking about told us that he would have to atone for his life before he could join God's presence. He made no mention of the man's longtime partner. What he had been had surpassed who he had been.
So I'm writing this because the Irish man I knew deserved better than this infuriatingly ambiguous send-off. He deserved to be remembered for demonstrating time and time again the holiest thing of all, compassion.
He was good, he was decent, he was kind. There was something that was even otherworldly about it I thought. So I will carry the memory of this man and his many kindnesses with me. I want to mark it and record it here because it mattered. His kindness mattered. If there is anything holy in this world, I think it's that.