What My Oldest (he was 96 when he died) Friend Taught Me About Inclusion (And It’s Probably Not What You’re Thinking)

I was 6 years old when I met Dekle Taylor for the first time. I will never forget - we were moving through the greeting line at the first church I attended with my parents. Dekle was shaking hands. I remember when he got to me, he got right down on my level, looked me square in the face and said: “Now how are you doing today, young lady?” And I remember he emphasized the you. And it was the first time I remember really feeling *seen* by an adult who wasn’t a family member. Like he actually did care how I was doing, and I could see that in his face. I remember thinking as we continued to move through the greeting line that I wanted to see him again and talk to him some more.

Lucky for me, I would get that chance. Many times over, in fact. Dekle became a good family friend, though I’ve been told he was really *my* friend most of all.

Every time I’d see Dekle, he would right away dive in deep with the tough questions. In fact, come to think of it, I’m not sure I ever again got a “how are you?” from him since I was usually barely through the door when he’d start in with questions like, “So what do you think about what’s going on in the world right now?” (I was probably 12 at the time). Or, “what do you think about God these days?” Or, “what’s the current state of society?” (I was probably 15). Or, “what do you think we should do to fix this mess?” And so on.

I adored this about my relationship with Dekle. He challenged me. He invited me into higher levels of thinking. He invited me into deep conversation. I’m sure my brain grew 3 sizes every time we hung out. And over the years I learned that I wasn’t the only one he challenged with these types of questions.

Dekle was a respected surgeon, master gardener, adventurer, and life-long learner. He loved bringing folks together for dinner parties who came from wholly opposing schools of thought, and from wildly different life experiences. He loved to stir the pot and create organic opportunities for rich dialogue, and to provide the kind of necessary space where each of us can begin to understand one another more fully.

My dad, who taught religion and medical ethics, recalls that when he was teaching at the University of North Florida, Dekle and his wife Jeanne showed up as students on the first day of class. They were 88 and 84 years old, respectively, and apparently his “best students”.

Dekle fascinated and inspired me with his dogged determination to step boldly into uncomfortable, risky scenarios. I am certain, looking back, that he must have discovered early in life the essential relationship between discomfort and risk, and massive growth and new learning that exists for us there. He knew on a core level that you don’t get to grow without first getting uncomfortable. Nobody ever became who they desired to be while treading water in their comfort zone.

Dekle was an expert in inclusion. He relished in the unique stories, experiences, and beliefs of all humans. And he taught me a thing or two about how to live. I can’t say I’m nailing it yet, but here’s the list of Dekle-inspired truths on how to live that I’m striving for:

  • To stay curious, no matter what. No matter your experience, no matter your age.

  • To get awkward. To invite uncomfortable conversation into your home, your classroom, your workplace, your world.

  • To be relentless about your own education. To gather information and evidence from diverse sources.

  • Read, read, read.

  • Listen, listen, listen. The fact that as a physician Dekle specialized in treating ear problems is not lost on me. The ear must have been his genius zone.

  • To seize every opportunity to learn from people who are different than you.

  • To open yourself wholeheartedly to everything the natural and human world has to offer. To revel in the magic and beauty and mess of it all.

  • To never stop asking questions.

I’ll leave you with a quote of his, circa 1983:

“Enjoy the stars and plants, make friends with them, learn their names and introduce them to your wife and children. Listen to the birds. Show your appreciation by recognizing and feeding them. Observe the trees, plants and insects. Activate your imagination! Learn more about music, art, history, and literature. Participate in social, church, and other community organizations. Never pass a museum, zoo, or art gallery without giving it a look. You may discover a whole new universe.” - Dekle Taylor

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