My departmental colleague, Rob Hull, died unexpectedly yesterday. I would prefer to mourn his death in private and in person with others who knew and loved him, and I will do that. But public grieving in cyberspaceImage may contain: 1 person, smiling, standing, ocean, sky and outdoor has come to feel obligatory in this age of death-notice-via-social media. I’m not a fan of the latter. But I do want to communicate my affection for my philosopher friend.

Rob was kind. I think this quality of his character comes to mind for a lot of people who knew him. I think Rob cared about kindness. Which isn’t mere niceness but a virtue that must be cultivated and practiced over time.

Rob loved our students. He loved teaching. He knew that to introduce undergraduates to philosophy was to create the possibility in each of them of becoming a lifelong lover of wisdom (what philosophia literally means), and to seek the good, to care about the right things, to live worthy, beautiful lives. We toiled, he and I, in a higher education landscape that increasingly devalues religion and philosophy; that regards such disciplines as superfluous for the job training program that many now consider college to be.

Rob’s students loved him back. They were moved by his care for them, how he asked questions about their lives, cared about their futures, encouraged their scholarship and their athletic gifts (he was famous for this), seeing them as whole beings: body, mind, heart, and spirit.

I was making cookies for my own students (we do that kind of thing here) when I began receiving texts and calls about Rob’s death. I experienced what I have come to know as a truth of human existence: grief begins in the body and it exhausts our bodies. When death comes unexpectedly we are caught off guard by the physicality of the sorrow we feel—in our limbs, our chest, our throbbing temples. Or by a sorrow that leaves us numb, and wondering why we can’t feel anything.

The 13th century Sufi poet Rumi said:

Don’t run away from grief . . . Look for the remedy inside the pain.

Why on earth would we do that?

Because the ground of grief, the root of sorrow, is love. We grieve because we love. And love, too, lives in the body. Love is what we are made for.

I think Rob believed this deeply and he practiced it, like anyone does, imperfectly. I think his students sensed that he believed it. I think his kindness to them in explicit, practical ways—whether they were stellar students or struggling students—was one of the ways he lived this conviction.

I will miss Rob Hull, lover of wisdom, lover of students, and the daily, unassuming warmth of his witness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

“Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye