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Lou Gehrig’s life was enriched by a community that chose him, not the other way around

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Peggy Chun paints in the studio in her home in Honolulu with the assistance of a volunteer caregiver. The Hawaiian Catholic artist, who has been battling Lou Gehrig's disease for the past two years, paints by holding the brush with her teeth. (CNS photo by Lisa Benoit, Hawaii Catholic Herald) (Nov. 1, 2004) See CHUN Nov. 1, 2004.

Last month, Major League Baseball announced that it would honor Lou Gehrig, the famous New York Yankees first baseman, on June 2. The date has a double meaning in Gehrig’s life: In 1925, it marked his first game starting at first base; 16 years later, on June 2, 1941, Gehrig would pass away from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fast-moving neurodegenerative disease for which there remains no cure.

Lou Gehrig Day will be a special one for two groups of people: baseball fans who still marvel at the Iron Horse’s then-records for grand slams and consecutive games played, and those whose lives have been touched by ALS, who know Lou Gehrig more for the disease that bears his name than the number of baseballs he sent into bleachers.

Should I have the good fortune of being in a ballpark on June 2, I will be among both groups of people: a lover of America’s national pastime and someone with a family member battling ALS.

Since the announcement, I’ve been contemplating what lesson he might offer our culture. Though he lived nearly a century ago and only for 38 years, his life and legacy remain profound.

I think the lesson is this: In a time in which people increasingly and rigidly self-segment to take shelter with like-minded people — from the news we read, to the neighborhoods we live in, to the parishes we attend — Gehrig’s life is an instruction in the value of investing in communities we wouldn’t normally choose for ourselves.

Elise Italiano Ureneck, associate director of the Center for the Church in the 21st Century at Boston College, writes the “Finding God in All Things” column for Catholic News Service. (CNS photo/courtesy Elise Italiano)

In other words, we should try to live well wherever we’re “drafted,” either by life’s circumstances or God’s providence.

Despite our best efforts to design our own safe, comfortable networks, life still deals us relationships that are not of our own choosing: adoptive families, in-laws, students, colleagues, bosses, parishioners and pastors, to name a few.

Despite the mastery we have over a great deal of our lives, we still don’t get into the colleges of our dreams or get hired for the positions we want. Many experience unrequited love, while others endure rejection from religious communities. We land in places we don’t want to be alongside of people we don’t always like.

As biographer Jonathan Eig details in “Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig,” Gehrig’s entire life was a practice in that saying to “bloom where you are planted.”

He started with the Yankees in 1923, just as the team was beginning to establish itself as the dominant force in baseball. The roster was littered with big personalities, chief among them George “Babe” Ruth.

Gehrig, a shy young man of German descent with little interest in partying, gambling or women, found himself in the dugout and on the road with a raucous cohort who thought he was odd.

Years went by in which he spent evenings on the road alone, wishing for the comfort of his mother’s home-cooked meals and the security of his parents’ apartment.

Yet over time, Gehrig developed meaningful, life-changing friendships with teammates, despite only having baseball in common with them. For a time, Babe Ruth became endeared to Gehrig’s mother (and her cooking), which eventually strengthened his friendship with her son.

While their friendship fueled their neck-and-neck home run rallies, it also helped to loosen Gehrig up and expose him to some of life’s less serious but no less delightful offerings.

Another teammate and his wife helped Gehrig to see that his overprotective mother was sabotaging his romantic relationships; these friends gave him the courage to court and marry his wife, Eleanor Twitchell, despite his fear of losing his mother’s love.

And of course, as Gehrig noted in his famous farewell speech after receiving his diagnosis, everyone from the managers and owners who took a bet on him to the groundskeepers at the stadium all played a part in helping him to feel like “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

His life was enriched by a community that chose him, not the other way around. It took an investment of time — well more than a decade — to reap the benefits.

On June 2, I’ll be happy to be standing alongside fellow baseball fans, eager to be in a ballpark after more than a year away.

But I’ll also be glad to be standing shoulder to shoulder with members of a community that no one would choose. They have been some of the most compassionate people I’ve ever been privileged to meet.

We’d all feel a bit luckier — nay, blessed — if we opened ourselves up to the goodness found in people we’d rather not encounter.

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Elise Italiano Ureneck is a communications consultant and is a columnist for Catholic News Service.