The lesson

I’d like to write today in honor of my friend, John Henry Thomas, an incredibly gifted and hardworking artist who passed away last month.  

Here’s a picture of John from around when I first met him, about 20 years ago.

John had a long and full life that was not easy but never boring, with many epic chapters and many funny ones.

A timely example of both occurred in the early 1960s when, after a number of years in the Navy, he was living in DC.  Here is a picture of him from close to that time. 

One day he was out walking and saw a bunch of people, including some attractive young women, heading toward the National Mall, so he decided to follow them to see what was going on. 

There was a huge crowd assembling there, and believe it or not, that crowd turned out to be the March on Washington, where he then witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Did you know the end of King’s speech was improvised?  I’ve always loved that the most memorable part of the speech was delivered extemporaneously.  If you watch the video, it is easy to tell when he stops reading from his prepared speech, just before he starts talking about “the dream.”  He had spoken on the theme before, as you can see from the transcript of the speech he gave at Cobo Arena in Detroit a couple months earlier.  But while he knew the verbal territory, which you can also tell from how organized the thoughts are, in that moment in DC he instinctively re-ordered and focused his ideas, and then I think the most transformative moment came from something else entirely. 

To me, the most powerful moment is when he shifts from talking about civil rights in broad terms to, for the first time, talking about his hopes for his own four children, making the concepts he’s discussing suddenly deeply personal.  We can feel that sentence go straight through his heart.  And by letting you in, it becomes more powerful.  You can feel his energy shift, and the crowd response changes.  And then, in the next sentence, he connects those hopes for his children to hopes for everyone’s children, and the crowd response swells even more.  

The full title of the March on Washington was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, but this improvised end of King’s speech made it so that the part we remember – at least what I remember – is his sharing with us his personal dream.  Not just his dream as an activist or a preacher, but his dream as a father.  And by doing so, he made us feel for a moment what he felt: a parent’s wish for a more just and more loving world for his children.  

By contrast, my friend John’s childhood had been filled with chaos and violence.  He was kidnapped as an infant and taken across the country by an aunt whose mental illness put him through a crucible of random punishments. 

But his life was not without mercy: his aunt eventually attracted a boyfriend who was not only stable and kind, but also had an extended Gullah family in the Carolinas who provided John with a sane refuge in the summers, a place where the adults made sense and love was something that could be relied upon.  No one ever saved him from his aunt, but they offered him a reflection of himself as someone who was valued.

From this blend of dark and light, John developed a deep love of order, eventually leading him not just to the Navy but to a degree in math.  He also loved the order of ideas, or philosophy.  And then there was art, where John trained as an apprentice and eventually became a master deep relief sculptor, die cutter, and ornamental hand engraver, one of the few in the country, which allowed him to gradually and obsessively hone the world and make it more beautiful, more perfect.  Creating high-end jewelry at Van Craeynest, and sometimes for private commissions, he did a whole lot of that for many years.  

And for the last couple of years, John and I were working on a project together.  We were going to create a YouTube channel where he would share parts of his story and connect them with things he learned that he then applied to his work.  

I greatly regret that I don’t have any of it to show you, because other than some early videos testing equipment, we were never able to get past the planning and research stage.  That was mostly because of John’s physical limitations and health challenges, but it seemed to me that it was also because he struggled with the idea of putting something out there before it was perfect.  And although I suggested we just get something started and fine tune it later (which is how I always work), I understood why he kept wanting to plan it completely first (which is how he always worked).  

Wanting to wait until your work is perfect is common and completely natural.  But if you consider that Dr. King example, it demonstrates the power of leaving space for that little bit of whatever you want to call it – God? Magic? Inspiration?  And also, look at that speech in Detroit, and all the other speeches.  I’m not even talking King’s speeches and sermons in general, but just his speeches on this particular topic.  How many times did he give that “dream” speech, or a variation on that speech, and it was good, or even great, but not world-changing?  

How many times do you have to show up and be “good,” in order to allow that one moment when you get to be the vehicle for something transcendent?  

Although my project with John now lives only in my memory, I do get to at least leave you with this one chapter, this one lesson from him:  Don’t wait to be perfect.  Don’t wait to be safe. Not with your work, not with the people in your life.  Striving for perfection is admirable, but I believe the world would have been a better place with more of John’s story in it, imperfect or not.  The world is a better place with more of your story in it, too.  With more of you in it.  

I was honored to know John and call him my friend.  I miss him.  And I will be over here, still trying my best to learn this lesson myself.