I came to college knowing what I wanted to do and be–a minister, a man who knew truth, who lived it, and would teach it. I knew about character and the importance of a man’s word. My dad taught me that growing up on a dairy farm in mid-Michigan…like learning how to politely refuse money from a grateful traveler after knocking on our door late on a snowy night requesting help to get his car out of a ditch; or what not to say to a 15 year old son who, after nearly five years of responsible driving and handling of numerous trucks, tractors, and machines of all sorts, walked in the door of our small farm house and announced to everyone around the dinner table that he had just flipped the truck upside down in a small ditch while taking my grade school friend home after a long, hot day of baling hay; or, later, while away at college, being told by my older brother, how he and my dad had quietly unloaded loads of hay in our neighbor’s yard at night so that our proud neighbor, who had just lost nearly everything in a barn fire, would not be able to pay for it, as he surely would have if he had known who left it.
Soon enough, word got out among some of the other students that I had some “promise.” I was invited to leave the dorm at the end of my first semester to live with four other students, one sophomore, one junior, and two seniors in a five-man house respected campus-wide for intellectual and personal achievement. One of the students of “House 11” was to transfer out at the end of the semester, and they wanted me!
I got to know Bruce, the unspoken leader of House 11, and we became good friends. He was brilliant, perhaps the most intelligent man I have met to this day. He possessed a rare gift of insight and wisdom that was many, many years past his, and my young age, that would take him into private discussions after hours with many of the college professors. It was easy to be taken in, at both his presence and his interest in me. He counseled me in what classes to take–history, philosophy, comparative religion, and we talked about the meaning of life late into many, many nights. I believed what he told me and trusted him with my life.
I was engaged to my high school sweetheart when I moved into House 11, but I was young and naïve. Unknowing to me, my life was being channeled into a narrow path with little room for change or awareness. In fact, ignoring life outside my particular belief structure was part of “living” the life I was being taught; you could observe life outside of the church, but you must always take care never to get caught up in it. I was like a train on its track, going wherever the track went with few questions or original thoughts. Little did I know how “unlike” House 11 philosophy my life was, but I was to soon find out!
One night after talking with Bruce, he looked straight at me and said, “Ken, your life is really messed up.” He paused as he looked slightly away. He turned back. “With your permission, I’d like to take your life apart and put it back together again.”
Just like that! Simple! Direct! I was clay in the sculptor’s hands. I said, “Yes!”
It didn’t take long for the fallout to start. One of the first things Bruce told me was that my engagement to my high school sweetheart was not right. He asked me, “If you don’t even know who you are, how in the world can you expect to get married?”
I told my fiancée that I needed some time to learn about myself, my journey, my life. She was hurt badly but tried not to let it show. She said she understood, and while she knew my demands that this be permanent, so as to not sabotage the outcome, she would wait for me. My heart broke with humility at her acceptance of what I knew to be my own shortcomings. Yet she was willing to wait. What kind of love is that I wondered?
Life became a whirlwind of reading, study, discussion, and debate. Bruce taught me how to look beyond my own opinions, to see the motivations behind words and actions of those around me. I experienced a sensitivity I had never known as I learned about how alike we all are. I was becoming a realized person.
I absorbed knowledge by reading books, hundreds of them. I made an outline and kept a file of each one. My thinking grew larger as my world expanded through the writings of philosophers and theologians. Finally, as a sophomore in a senior level philosophy class, I received the highest grade for my semester final paper on the definition of ultimate knowledge. It was time for the student to break from the teacher.
It got more difficult for Bruce to answer my questions, or even to give counsel without becoming judgmental. While Bruce told me he was only “opening me to myself,” and was usually careful to allow me to find my own way, some of his own personal beliefs were portrayed as being “truth.” Some of these ran counter to my own, and I had reached a point where I no longer accepted everything Bruce said without question.
Our discussions grew more heated. Shorter, too! Feelings boiled to the surface. Finally, after an intense disagreement during a 10-day trip down the east coast, our friendship came to a close. The most intense friendship and learning experience of my life lasted a little over two years.
Long before my friendship with Bruce ended, I restated my love for my high school sweetheart and she was gracious enough to take me back. We were married April 2, 1977 and raised three wonderful children. We remained married until our divorce some 22 years later. She said she never forgave me for breaking our first engagement.
Friendships are intense and sometimes gut-wrenching experiences. I am now married to a beautiful and wonderful woman I love dearly.