There was only one assignment in the class: an essay in which we students were asked to “say something unique and beautiful about Milton.” Now, these many years later, I have no idea what my essay was about, but I do recall sitting down with him to discuss it after I’d turned it in. He liked to give an “exit interview” to each student in which he shared his thoughts and handed out the dreaded grades. To me he said, in that slow, halting voice: “Mr. Bailey, there are some ideas here that are unique, and some that could be called beautiful, but never both at the same time. Perhaps one day you’ll figure out how to introduce them.” After my experience in this transformative class and this hopeful counsel, I happily took my B.
I returned to Duke for law school a few years after college and had the chance to get to know Reynolds socially at that time. We were not close, and he didn’t share with me the secrets of his genius, but he did once tell me that “if you let it, tragedy can bring a kind of patience and watchfulness that you never knew was possible.” Around that time, he mentioned that he had been corresponding with a young doctor who had a terminal diagnosis and was struggling with questions of faith, fate and how to overcome paralyzing fear.
Reynolds died of a heart attack in 2011, several years after I last spoke to him. In 2017, when I had my own bout with disease, I had this palpable wish to speak to him again, to see if he had any more wisdom for me. It was only then that I learned that he had ultimately published those letters with the young doctor in the form of a little essay, “Letter to a Man in the Fire,” which wound up being a touchstone for me, as he described “the bottomless mystery of suffering” juxtaposed against our “fierce hope to live.”
My takeaway is this: In the face of the uncertainty and upheaval of a global pandemic and what seems to be a societal awakening to gross injustice, we all have a need to both sit with and even appreciate suffering (our own and others’) in order fully to understand the gift of life. In one of his many memoirs, Reynolds wrote that, even after “full catastrophe,” his life had “gone still better” and was full of “more love and care, more knowledge and patience, more work in less time.”4 What a thing to say, and what courage it took to live that way. I think he would relish this time in which we’re living—because it forces us, to varying degrees and in different ways each day, to immerse ourselves in discomfort, sadness and suffering, and through that to find fierce hope.5
1. Bowler, a writer and professor, was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 35. She went on to write Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved) in 2018.
2. As a total tangent, if you haven’t read her novel Rich in Love (1987), treat yourself to it. It’s the best coming-of-age story you’ve probably never heard of.
3. Book III, lines 236-241.
4. A Whole New Life (1994).
5. As a postscript, I am delighted to have the chance to write this note on the last day of Pride Month for an entirely separate reason: Reynolds was the first openly gay adult I knew personally. (Yes, I know that seems impossible to believe, but growing up in the 70s and 80s in the Deep South, it wasn’t very far-fetched.)
Kevin Bailey, a Brunswick Partner in Washington, DC, was BP’s head Washington lawyer and a key strategist for the company’s response to the Deepwater Horizon accident.
Photograph: Eddie Hausner/The New York Times/Redux