A few days ago, I was standing outside Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church in Calabar, chatting to a few of my friends and meeting some of theirs. Behind them, I could see a multitude of darkly-clad mourners streaming out of the gloomy interior and blinking in the bright afternoon light. It was a sombre day that had arrived quite suddenly in the wake of an unexpected tragedy.
Someone in our group mused aloud about why such a bright, promising and well-loved young man should pass away in the prime of his life. Half-jokingly, I concurred, wondering why others, whom we would not miss quite as much, will still be around to make our lives a misery. Just our version of the well-worn question, “Why do the good always seem to die young?” The conversation took a few more twists and turns before we drifted away quietly, with promises to meet again soon.
On the drive back home, the question continued to plague me. Was there really any truth in it? Surely death is completely random and anyone can go, at any time, in a huge variety of circumstances, long before old age sets in. After all, lots of good people are still alive and lots of criminals and others with risky lifestyles die young too. So, does this mean that the feelings expressed by the family and friends of this gone-too-soon young man are misplaced, heightened perhaps by pain and a sense of loss? Maybe not.
Although I don’t have any statistical evidence to back me up, I do have a theory. I believe that ‘the good’, meaning those bright, ambitious, hardworking and positive souls who make life better for the rest of us, take more risks than those who remain average. And, by virtue of being chance-takers, they are more likely to risk life and limb in pursuit of their goals.
By all accounts, Peter Bello was such a person. He wanted to live life to the full. When he passed away at just 26, he was a seasoned traveller, trained helicopter pilot, accomplished photographer, part-time model and fitness enthusiast. He was well-educated, popular and a loyal son, brother and friend. I didn’t know him that well but whenever I saw him on his trips home to Calabar, he struck me as being polite, respectful and composed. At an age when most of his contemporaries would have just finished their first degree and probably been hanging around the family business, Peter already had his Masters, had completed flight school and was off to a bright start in his career.
According to my theory, Peter would still be with us if he had stayed at home in Calabar, watching movies, playing video games and eating his mom’s famous cooking. However, once you leave your comfort zone, driving, flying and venturing abroad; or you begin speaking against injustice, standing up for the weak and assuming positions of leadership; or you dare to dream big, follow that dream and actually believe you can fly; then, inevitably, life becomes more dangerous. That’s why so many people keep their feet firmly planted on the ground, never daring to take to the sky. Undoubtedly, they are safer. But are they happier, knowing that their dreams will never be realised?
When I think back to all the times in my life when I felt safest, they are also the most boring, repetitive and predictable periods of my life. And yet, those are the times when I had what most people covet – a stable job, a familiar circle of friends, above average income and a couple of nice vacations every year. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to see more of the world, do more interesting work and have more of an impact on other people. I wanted to see how much more I could make of my God-given talents, so that I could die without regrets, unfulfilled dreams and nagging thoughts of all the things I could have done but didn’t.
It is said that most people at the end of their lives, if they have the opportunity to contemplate, never regret the things they’ve done as much as the things they haven’t.
I’m still on that journey and I still have so much to do. I had a narrow escape three and a half years ago on a lonely rural road in Lagos state, when two of our group didn’t make it out of the wreckage alive. So, I don’t take anything for granted. If I was spared for a reason, I think it’s my duty to figure out what my purpose is. And, if I’m going out, let me go like that fearless young co-pilot who died doing something he loved and in the service of others.
Take it from me, your life is supposed to mean something. Sure, it’s safer on the ground but anything could happen, anywhere and at any time.
Wouldn’t you rather be flying?
Dedicated to my friend, Thelma Bello, and her family. May God give you the strength to bear your loss.