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Redemptive Suffering

An unorthodox course of study with a beloved mentor allows one alumnus to begin his journey of healing.

Alumnus Douglas Ayres. Photo courtesy of D. Ayres.
Alumnus Douglas Ayres. Photo courtesy of D. Ayres.

On the morning of February 20, 2006, I received a call from my father at 8 a.m. It was a holiday, President’s Day. My father could not speak. He sounded in shock. And he was only able to stutter a few words and my name for about a minute: “Dylan … accident …” I threw the phone down.

I knew something terrible had happened. I knew one of my boys had died.

The sheer terror shook every bone in my body. The worst fear a parent can have had just happened. Dylan, my 15-year-old son, had been ejected while sleeping in the back seat of the car — not wearing his seat belt. Dylan breathed his last breath on a cold winter morning while holding the hand of my best friend. They were on their way to Mammoth to ski.

Just two days before the accident I took Dylan and our three other children to Los Angeles for the weekend to show them my favorite places while attending USC in the ’80s. Little did I know at the time that I would be going back to USC as part of my journey of healing.

Two years after the accident I was having a difficult time emotionally and physically. I took a leave from our family business, Ayres Hotels, to venture into a deeper internal healing process, which I shared with Professor Donald Miller, with whom I had studied as a religion major. For 31 years I had been bothered by not finishing my degree at USC; I lacked a single course. 

After talking with Don about my family’s loss, he suggested that I do a four-unit directed study that would focus on my grieving process. I would document this experience through writing and preparation of a video that recorded some of my experiences since Dylan’s death. We both realized it was an unorthodox plan of study, but a standard reading course seemed removed from my reality.

Not too long after Dylan’s death I sought solitude in a silent monastery in the desert of New Mexico. With the guidance of a community of Benedictine monks I began to sort out the deep pain in my soul. This was a strange environment for me, but not too different, in an odd way, from the black Pentecostal churches that I had studied in Professor Miller’s sociology of religion course many years earlier. While Pentecostals and Benedictine monks are completely different in their style of worship, they both exemplify potential pathways to self-transcending experiences.

Rather than practice qualitative research skills, as was the requirement in my religion course years ago, I dove into life in the monastery as a fully immersed participant: chanting the psalms seven times a day, chopping wood for the chapel’s fireplace, and spending time in contemplation and solitude. 

It was a completely different rhythm of life from the work schedule in the family business, where I was traveling constantly and involved in managing large construction projects. At the monastery, I was learning to listen to an inner voice, connecting to a presence that was much larger than myself. I was stepping outside the box of my upper-middle class life just as I had done when I entered my first, black Pentecostal church in South L.A.

When I think back on what USC taught me, it was not simply a curriculum oriented around assigned readings. It was taking advantage of an incredibly rich cultural environment in one of the world’s great metropolitan regions. And it was faculty members, such as Professor Miller, who encouraged me to venture beyond the ivory tower, in my current pursuit for meaning as well as in my entire personal and professional life.

I am still on a journey of healing, while at the same time trying to help others in need — which, in itself, is healing. I continue to spend time in various monastic settings, seeking peace, pursuing insights that will reframe the tragedy of losing a son. 

If there is an irony regarding my return to USC, it is that I found out while doing my project with Professor Miller that, indeed, I already had enough credits to graduate in 1983. But this opportunity to reflect on my personal journey with a former mentor has been invaluable. There is more than one meaning to being a member of the Trojan Family.

Douglas Ayres (B.A., religion, ’83), of the Ayres Hotels of Southern California, resides in Orange County with his family.

Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Spring/Summer 2010 issue.