This is a story about the life lessons we can all take from any tragedy, whether it’s close by or far away. This is a story about one person’s ripples becoming another’s tidal waves. This is a story about people connecting with each other. This is a story about how a stranger’s death changed my life.
In 2009, a friend fatefully introduced me to the TV show Glee, and from the beginning I was hooked. I made my friends watch it, I quoted it in my public speaking, I used it to connect with students when I worked in a school, I wrote about it in my blog… multiple times. There were so many aspects of Glee that touched me, but one of the most important was that I loved Finn.
Finn was The Quarterback. He was the good guy, the leader, the one who was willing to admit his mistakes, who treated everyone with decency and honesty. And the actor who played him, Cory Monteith, was like that too. In 2011 Cory came to my college for a show and I had the opportunity to meet him. Overcome by emotion, unsure of what to say, I simply asked, “Can I hug you?” “Come here,” was his answer.
Two years later- and three years ago today- on July 13, 2013, Cory Monteith died of a drug overdose in a hotel in Canada, not a week after graduating from rehab.
My world was rocked. Although I didn’t know Cory, somehow he was this incredibly important figure in my life. In many ways he had been my hero: the one who made me believe, above all else, that every person mattered- and, by extension, that I mattered.
Friends I hadn’t spoken to in years sent me messages to ask whether I was alright; one housemate even drove me to a candlelight vigil outside Paramount Studios. At the vigil fans took turns sharing their experiences about meeting Cory. When it was my turn, I said that all I could think to do in the face of this tragedy was find a way to inject into our future lives what I saw as Cory’s ultimate lesson: every person matters. Whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not, whether they have broken laws or hurt themselves or even hurt you- they are a human being, and every human being matters.
The day Cory died, the internet was alight with words from people who were deeply, genuinely affected. I had never felt so connected to people all over the globe who were feeling the same loss that I was, although it touched each of us in different ways. I imagined how modest Cory would be if he could see to how many people saw him as a hero- and then I wondered whether that could be the case with all of us. Maybe we haven’t all touched millions of people, but we have all been there for a friend, smiled at a stranger, offered a kind word when somebody seemed down- and to those people our actions may have meant the world. In some way, we are all heroes.
In the days following Cory’s death, I was forced to make a career decision; a few days earlier I had been offered an internship at an education nonprofit in New York City, and I didn’t have long to decide whether to uproot and go. Simply put, I was scared. I couldn’t shake the feeling that this decision would affect the rest of my life. Overwhelmed, confused, and frozen, I asked a friend for advice. “What if you went to New York,” she said, “and you helped one student, and because of you, that student didn’t become involved in drugs like Cory?”
Life isn’t quite that simple, but the meaning was clear: I could change a life. My tiny action could lead to another tiny action that, some day, could save somebody’s hero. In that universal way in which we are all connected, it almost felt like saving Cory.
So I went to New York City, visiting Boston along the way. One thing led to another, and a year later, I found myself moving to Boston to work at an education nonprofit. Right before we began working in schools, we each stood up in front of the entire corps and all of the organization’s employees to dedicate our year of service.
When it was my turn, my hand shook as I took the microphone. “I want to dedicate my year of a service to a guy who taught me that every person, no matter what, matters. Whether they think they do or not. And that guy’s name is Cory Monteith.”
Cory taught me how interconnected people really are, how we care about the same things and how we want to help each other. Cory inspired me to take chances- from moving to New York to starting my lofty 101 Goals in 1001 Days (which I began on July 13, 2015, the anniversary of the day Cory’s death began to change my life). Most importantly, though, Cory taught me that one person’s actions can shape another’s life.
You don’t have to be a famous actor. You don’t have to preach. If we live life in a way that aligns with our own personal truths, we will touch and inspire others. Cory taught me that it’s possible to change a person’s path simply by existing. Cory taught me that everyone has the power to make change. Cory taught me that I can make change.
Cory taught me that, if we’re open to exploring the world and trying to understand our place in it, we open ourselves to experiences and lessons and being swept away in a tidal wave of life’s richness that began with a single ripple. Cory taught me that, if we allow it, even a stranger’s death can change our lives.