When was the last time you took a minute to appreciate just how beautiful Chapel Hill is in the springtime? Did you notice that the Bradford Pear Trees were in bloom last week? Their shocking white flowers crowded Franklin Street with an explosion of light and smells.
Have you noticed that there's a hint of green painting the oak trees on campus? Or taken a walk barefoot through the soft grass which is already ankle-high in the quad?
Have you gazed at the setting sun as the tension from a day of classes or work drifts away on the breath of a cool evening breeze? Have you taken the time to say, "Thank you," or "I love you"? Have you called your mom just to hear the sound of her voice?
If you haven't done any of these things, then perhaps you should. Too caught up in the daily grind to recognize what living is really all about, you just might wake up someday to discover that life has left you behind ... just like the blooms on those Bradford Pear Trees which already have been spirited away by the blustery March winds.
There's an old saying which, unfortunately, still rings true for many people today: "The worst thing about youth is that it is wasted on the young." The last very difficult year of my life has driven home -- with overwhelming force -- the sad wisdom of this saying.
I did my undergraduate work in Chapel Hill, and in those four years, I honestly can say that I never understood or appreciated what was truly important about my college experience. I was so concerned with getting ahead that I didn't realize what -- and who -- I was leaving behind. I was so overwhelmed by petty people and trivial things that I seldom heard the voices of reason.
Seasons passed without so much as a moment's pause to appreciate the beauty of this wonderful place. Springs came and went without notice. The scarlet leaves of fall danced before unseeing eyes. It is only now that I can see what I was missing all those years. My vision has been sharpened by the hastened maturity that accompanies a tragic life experience.
The ironic thing about facing death is that it gives you a whole new appreciation for the joys of life. Every moment is precious. Every friend is indispensable. Every sunset is worth taking just a few seconds to savor.
It's been less than a year now since I learned that I am HIV positive. And for a 23-year-old who thought he had an eternity ahead of him, that discovery was a wake-up call to the importance of living like none that I had experienced before. Without worrying about how stupid I looked or what ears would hear, I repeated aloud a mantra on the day of that fateful discovery: "I will not be bitter," I cried. "I will not be bitter."
And I'm not.
Although I've experienced anger the likes of which I've never known, although I've sunken to the depths of self-loathing and spent days on end chasing regrets from my mind like so many blinding grains of sand in a dust storm ... I haven't let myself become jaded. I haven't let myself give up. I refuse to live that kind of life.
And when -- if -- it comes to that, I refuse to die that kind of death. Something good must come of my experience. Because if it doesn't, then I've lived my life in vain. If all I can do with my struggle is to teach other people the value of their existence on this beautiful earth, then my life -- and my death -- will be given some meaning.
The cause of my struggle isn't really what's important. I know that many people will pass judgment on my life, blaming me for the disease that may eventually end it. But those same people will also miss the point of my message: Whether it's from AIDS or cancer, a car accident or ruthless murder, young people do face death all the time ... even right here in Chapel Hill. With their youth shrouding them in a sense of false security, many of those same young people will leave this world without fully realizing the importance of the very short time they are given on this planet.
Maybe that's where I come in. After all, the best and worst thing about HIV is that the virus gives you time to reflect on life. There's not a sudden departure without time to say good-byes. In fact, if anything, you're given too much time during which to mull everything over.
Since you don't know when your end will come, every time you hang a Christmas stocking or hear the cry of an infant just beginning life's wondrous journey, you savor that moment as if it's your last. Every time you have lunch with friends or smell the sweet mountain air after a summer storm, you burn that memory deep into your soul. This is the stuff of which life is made. This is what's important.
It shouldn't take facing death for us to come to this realization, though, and that's the one regret that I can't seem to chase away. Before I discovered just how precious my life is, too many friends fell by the wayside. Too many memories slipped through my fingers. Too many sunsets passed without notice.
Thank God I've been given time to make up for those lost moments. Thank God I'm here to tell you not to waste your youth. Thank God my life can have some meaning.
As you go through the daily grind, take some time to appreciate the people who care for you. Work on your friendships just as much as you work on that paper or exam. Don't forget that life is never to be taken for granted and that none of us knows how much precious time we've been given. Be kind to other people. Treat one another with love and respect. Never take yourself too seriously.
This is the message I hope my struggle can convey to you. And, in the moments when even I forget what life is all about, maybe you can remind me of this message, too. After all, it's not always easy to keep a smile on my face and my feet on the ground. That's where all of you come in.