Back in August, we launched a campaign with our friends at Cougfan.com called UNIT3D for Hilinski’s Hope. The centerpiece of the fundraiser, which raised more than $13,000 for the Hilinski’s Hope foundation, was some apparel*; however, there also was an opportunity to donate at a level that procured some space at CougCenter.
What follows is from Daniel V. Johnson, who decided he wanted to write something personal.
*By the way — it looks like we’re doing another printing run of the UNIT3D apparel at Bonfire. If you missed out the first time, or just want another shirt, you can order one (or more) now!
“There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it… “
— Edith Wharton
My story as it relates to Tyler Hilinski is complex, yet simple. I am part of a 2nd generation of proud Cougar graduates who support WSU and the CAF as much as we can. We go back to Pullman often, and our home is full of Cougar logos, memorabilia, and warmth that only comes from spending many formative years there. We also come from family backgrounds that include challenges such as suicide and substance abuse. We have participated in events to support suicide prevention and strive to use our good fortune to improve the world as we see it.
The day that news broke of Tyler’s passing hit me nearly as hard as losing a family member. As the days clicked along, I reflected on the situation, the aftermath, and my feelings about all of it. I felt compelled to allow Tyler Hilinski’s story to be the spark that helped me be the candle of light to be shared.
At first, I made my donation simply to provide quiet support for a cause that I cared deeply about; it was only after receiving a personal response from Kym and reflecting more that I realized that telling my story and offering my perspective might be a greater gift than any monetary contribution. Thank you to everyone who shares the spirit of Cougar Pride, for this site as a source of community, and to the Hilinskis who have not only chosen to be a candle in this challenging situation, but have also chosen to be the mirror that reflects that light everywhere they can.
Choices – our lives are forged and changed by the choices we make and of those around us. Think back to your own childhood. No matter your background, in the beginning were most likely feelings and experiences revolving around curiosity, learning, joy, and love. From those earliest days, choices shape our personalities, moods, feelings, perspectives, and how we perceive the world. Our hearts are at peace, if only because we don’t know any better as babies, toddlers, and children.
Life, however, begins to adjust because of the myriad of choices made and imposed. From home, to playgrounds and schools, to adolescence, puberty, cliques, emotions, and discovery, to college and living in many cases without a safety net, our lives are shaped through these events, and no two experiences are exactly alike. We experience things like struggle, pain, anger, sadness, happiness, excitement, joy, fear, appreciation, and the entire range of emotions that only come through living life and interacting with others. Our hearts can be at peace, and at times end up at war in the figurative sense, through conflict, hurt, misunderstanding, or loneliness. We learn that our choices have direct and indirect impacts on our lives and the lives of others.
Often, we learn in those years to conceal or mask our feelings and emotions, not because they aren’t important and normal in terms of human behavior. Why? Perhaps it is because of the response from others that overlook the fact that someone may be feeling mad, sad, or scared, and the person responding either has a heart at war towards others or has difficulty empathizing with the person in the struggle. It has become far too easy to be judgmental towards others, driving them toward seclusion, loneliness, depression, or other challenges like substance abuse or thoughts of suicide.
Think back to your teenage years, when you could at times feel like you knew everything you could ever need to know in one moment, and in the next feel a crushing amount of emotions that left you as low as could be. This doesn’t just happen in your teens; it starts as early as the elementary school playground where inclusion and celebration of differences not only gets cast aside at times but is replaced with bullying and isolation over fear of being isolated or bullied themselves. I believe that human nature is such that people, for the most part, want two things; first, to matter as a person and secondly, to be given an equal chance to add value to the world and its people. Those two things can often be the only two things that can turn a heart at war back to a heart at peace.
Many of us (myself included) make the choice to turn to organized sports to overcome our fears, be a part of something instead of being isolated, and experience the fruits of success as well as learn how to deal with adversity in a respectful, appropriate fashion. Where this seems to go wrong is when the cliques that come along with being a cheerleader, athlete, goth kid, skater, or other is used against them to divide and somehow create competition between people. You then have the stigma of being ‘seen as’ a certain type of person regardless of what you actually thought or believed, making the rift between groups even wider and more severe. The heart at war grows stronger as a defense mechanism against the hatred and judgment of others, often concealed to avoid further provocation or attack.
Growing up in the United States often includes choosing to prioritize competition as a primary means of creating self-worth, whether in the classroom or on the athletic fields or even in workplaces. Too often, the drive to be competitive leaves a great aftermath of destruction and self-loathing as good-intentioned people that don’t have the natural ability or talents of others now feel inferior and without empathy, and inclusion by others can fall into a trap of depression, substance abuse, or even suicide.
We as a nation have prioritized athletics to the point that we hold up college athletes as idols, even though they may still be struggling with the same challenges and self-doubt that are completely normal to have. The challenge is made even tougher because, as representatives of universities and organized teams, there is an implied responsibility to ‘have it all together’ as a means of demonstrating strength in lieu of showing strength through grace and empathy, and ensuring that people see the fallible, human beings behind the uniforms and masks we follow throughout the years. Take some of the strongest people you know, and ask yourself if the ‘never let them see you sweat’ demeanor is truly genuine, or if it’s a carefully crafted persona forged through battling hearts at war towards them over a lifetime of conflict.
Personally, I’ve been there, and I’ve come to realize that my greatest strength can be my vulnerability, if only so that others can see that they’re not any different than the rest of us.
So, what does this mean for you, and for me, and for Hilinski’s Hope? It comes down to a simple choice that we can make each and every moment of every day. Choosing to keep your heart at peace towards others, showing empathy and compassion toward the person and whatever they may be facing that day, or over the course of their lives, is an easy, powerful way to help people see that they matter, that they’re not alone in this world, and that they are valued as part of humanity.
Be the light you wish to see in others; whether it’s a simple smile, or a ‘thank you’ or even taking a few minutes to listen, make the time and the effort to connect with others. You just never know when or how much it might matter, and it may not even matter much to you, but you could be making a tremendous difference in someone’s life that helps guide their choices toward the unbridled joy of a childhood heart at peace, as opposed to a hardened heart at war that is weary and can’t see a way out of the fog that life can present at times.