The following comprises a fictitious account of a meeting between Bobby Kennedy and me at The Ambassador Hotel, several hours before he was gunned down.
Me: You have no idea what it means to me to meet you. I’ve had so many questions that I’ve wanted to ask since I heard the speech you gave after Martin Luther King’s assassination. You’ve inspired me in so many ways.
Bobby: Thank you for thinking so highly of me; I’m not sure I deserve such adoration. That speech was one of the most difficult moments of my life. Although we were prepared for the potential of Martin’s life being placed in danger, it’s still difficult to accept his passing and what his absence will mean to each of those who loved him.
Me: I wonder if this will divide our country even further…
Bobby: I wouldn’t doubt it, but we have to remain optimistic.
Me: Your speeches are so moving, and shed light on our ability to remain hopeful and humane in difficult times. In one you stated, “The victims of the violence are black and white, rich and poor, young and old, famous and unknown. They are, most important of all, human beings whom other human beings loved and needed. No one—no matter where he lives or what he does—can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed.” You were able to find unity in tragedy and community in existential fear. In times of potential chaos, you presented with a sense of certainty, of how we would be. How were you able to do that?
Bobby: I knew that, despite our cultural and racial differences, we were all, to a great extent, the same. We suffered the same sorrows, and reached the same heights. We all live and all of us will someday die. As Aeschylus once noted, those who choose to learn must suffer, and suffering teaches us the grand wisdom of unity; it informs us of our connections with one another. Whether you’re up high in some pseudo-palace near Central Park or homeless on the street below, your stories will meet the same fates. We consider ourselves to be different from the homeless beggars and the animals we purport to care for, but we’re not. We breathe as they breathe, we struggle as they struggle; and, it’s our duty to help each other live better lives before the great bell tolls and the reaper comes calling our names.
Me: You said, “My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”” Is that wisdom our connectedness to one another?
Bobby: Through our own sorrow, we can experience that which centers itself in others. When we experience pain, we learn about our own yearning to ease the gravity of that which belongs to them.
Me: I often struggle with my work. As a therapist, I frequently find myself questioning the effects of my actions on my clients. I doubt myself, I doubt the efficacy of my treatment methods, I doubt their results, and I doubt my patients’ assurances of improved lives. I often feel suffocated by the notion that all of it is inconsequential, that our treatments are only moderately effective, and that what I’ve done was as helpful, and important, as a kind word from another.
Bobby: It’s fascinating that you doubt the importance of kindness; often, it’s the best of what we’re able to offer. I felt the same way on my trip to the delta; I felt hopeless, and useless. But, I realized that, outside of the basic need for survival, people need to feel cared for and loved. Although, I couldn’t help the poor of the delta and the unemployed of Appalachia, they knew that I cared for them, and in some way, that compassion eased their suffering. Through neglect and mistreatment, people sometimes lose their sense of importance and thus, their will to live. You’ve made them feel heard, and consequently loved. Whether or not they decided to use any of what you taught them, they’ll never forget how much it meant to them to have you care enough about them to attempt to help them resolve their emotional turmoil.
Me: Considering your incredible speeches, what impressed me most was your confidence, which manifested itself through your rhetoric. I remember how scared you were, and how much it showed, when you initially began publically speaking. It reflected something deep in me: my own anxieties about talking to others, and my fear of not making sense or being eloquent. How did you do it, become so sure of yourself?
Bobby: I’m not so sure I ever became sure of myself, but I was certain of my message. I had no idea what I was doing on those stumps; I couldn’t image myself ever being as good as John was. But, my message was important, and I had to make sure others understood it. I stopped focusing too much on myself how how I looked and sounded, and eventually decided to spend my energy on what I was trying to get across; that’s what mattered. I was a conduit for my sentiments, and I knew that they could arouse others to action, or at least deep contemplation. If you can accept your relative insignificance, you’ll become able to deliver the words; hesitation ceases when you begin to believe in them.
Me: It seems as though you’ve developed so much in the past few years. Do you think that altering oneself can help foster change in others? And where could we even start?
Bobby: We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. (Quote taken from a speech.)
Me: Do you consider death often?
Bobby: Maybe too often. But, death is the great catalyst for life, without which I can’t imagine a harmonious existence.
Me: Do you believe it helps us love one another?
Bobby: If I knew that I wasn’t going to die, I wouldn’t have much need for a meaningful life; purpose and death are intimately linked, and infinitely so. Because I am going to one day die, I have an indelible urge to make my life matter, and it can only truly matter through my service to others. Death is only scary to those who haven’t lived, and to fully live is to matter to others, as you do. Human harmony lies in human meaning. We love each other because we need each other. When I help another, she helps me through acceptance. When we learn that we gain from giving, the world will be a far more agreeable place.
Me: If you knew that death were approaching, would you be happy with the way you’ve lived?
Bobby: Although it’s been a short life, it was a good one; and, I couldn’t have asked for more. I can’t imagine a fully self-actualized human being, but I can picture one who’s tried. I wish I were able to do more; I wish that at times I tried harder. I’ll leave this world with regrets, but I’ll cherish the memories with the people whom I’ve loved. Was I as good as I could’ve been? No. Did I care about, and tried to foster, what truly matters? I would like to believe so.
Me: In a country that’s obsessed with possessions and status, can we actually say what really matters?
Bobby: Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product, if we judge the United States of America by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. (Quote taken from speech.)
Me: Thank you so much for meeting with me, and thank you for all of your wisdom. I don’t have the words to express how much your work, and your life, has meant to me. If I could even come close to living up to your integrity, and your strength, I’ll feel that my life was fulfilling.
Bobby: I’m happy to have met you. I hope that you’ll help inspire your generation to create a better world.
Me: I’ll try my best.
Bobby Kennedy was assassinated a few hours later, as he made his exit from the Grand Ballroom. According to Juan Romero, the last person to speak with him, as he lie dying, Bobby’s last words were “Is everybody okay?”