So far in my job as a chaplain, I have never been called to do my duty in the “line of fire.” That is, unless you count the time I physically shielded a doctor from the angry fists of a man who was accusing the doctor of caring too much about profits at our “for profit” hospital. I guess that was
Then there was the time on a darkened downtown street that I “pulled rank” on an Army Sergeant to prevent him from dislocating his wife’s shoulder. I doubt if those things should count, because stupid shouldn’t count.
Most of us do our everyday jobs with no need to take those kinds of risks. In fact our culture has made Job Safety and art form. We do everything to protect ourselves from death. From an early age, we learn fire prevention, drug prevention, stranger awareness, and pedestrian safety.
And once in puberty, we learn contraception, rape prevention and AIDS awareness. We host Prevention Conventions. We wear hats, helmets and seatbelts. We take lifesaving classes in smoking cessation, self-defense, defensive driving, and CPR. We read books on diet, exercise, and stress management.
But last month – when everything changed – we found out how much of an illusion safety has always been. Aboard four different aircraft, it didn’t help anyone to know how to buckle seatbelts, operate breathing masks or use seats cushions as floatation devices. No exit lights existed along the isle that could have led them to safety.
And now after the tragedy, we are doubling those efforts to pursue the ever-evasive idea of safety. If you fly leave the bobby pins, toothpicks, nail files, and box cutters at home. We are doing all the right things to make our world safe again.
But it seems to me that I remember one night in the Emergency Room staff, when a mom came in with her three year old. She had done all the right things to keep make her son’s world safe too.
The staff greeted the family with questions. Surely his mother had let him out of her sight, or his father had him in the yard and was not watching him properly.“ Parents who don’t watch their kids! “Humph!” we said, self-righteously.
We were pretty good at playing 20 questions with the families of trauma patients. You see, if we could name at least two or three stupid things that the victim had done, then we could assure ourselves that there was no way anything this stupid or tragic could happen to us.
Then the facts began to cloud our judgment. Facts are tricky that way. Mom had taken him on a play date to a beautifully swept tennis court in an exclusive metropolitan suburb. The court was locked, supervised, gated, cleaned and staffed by background-checked employees.
” Can I take off my shoes, Mommy?”
“ Sure, “ she replied, not wanting him to be so restricted.
He then began to explore his environment. He began kicking at the tennis fence. This was fun. “I’m in a giant playpen with mommy,” he must of thought. It was safe. There was no way out and no way in for anyone else. If any trouble did come, mom was close enough to meet it.
Close enough, but not fast enough. Sometimes trouble comes at the speed of light. Barefoot, he kicked a place on the fence near an outdoor outlet that was not properly grounded. The fence was electrified. Standing barefoot on a court damp from morning rain, his life spirit left with the morning dew.
” Damn!” The staff expressed. “There was nothing any of us would have done differently. This could have been our child.”
So, before use the incidents of 2001 to propel us back to Orwell’s 1984 and fill our streets with more cameras than a voyeuristic web site, I think we must ask ourselves a few questions. How can we balance our need for safety with our need to be free? How much is death really preventable? If we fill our days with extraordinary amounts of effort to prevent death, won’t we somewhere along the way be missing life? Some would suggest that the events of last month have ushered in a new reality. They say that we now have to live with the reality of death at the hands of madmen or misguided zealots. But the truth is that ever since the University of Texas tower, McDonalds in San Ysidro, CA, Oklahoma City, Cleveland Elementary and Columbine, I have lived in that reality. So it is not new! But since 9/11, it is undeniable.
Death has always been undeniably closer than we think and on September 11th, America joined the rest of the world in this realization. The Christian scripture teaches that “It is appointed unto a man once to die and after this the judgement.” The teaching admonishes not only to be ready to meet our God, but it seems to me that it is calling us to live our lives the way we would if we were to know with certainty that death is coming tomorrow. There is no way we can prevent death and stamp out evil. Some might say that the school ban on cargo pants at my son’s school has prevented another Columbine, but I suspect evil will always find a way. And I think before we try to impose a ban on evil, we have to remember that the Psalmist reminded us that “the heart is desperately wicked, who can know it?”
If the fear of death stops us from living, loving and longing for a peaceful future, the planes that toppled the World Trade Center will also have succeeded in toppling the foundation of a peaceful society. Death is close, but life can be closer and I choose life.