Long before we reach the grave, death has its victories over us. By some dreadful fate, celebrity deaths and public shootings have now become part of the American landscape. Responses to tragedy vary, but by God’s grace, one reaction is so universal that we take it for granted: grief at the loss of human life.
One day we didn’t even know a person was alive. The next, thousands of strangers mourn after that innocent life is taken. It doesn’t matter their age, their color, or where they’re from—they were people, and that’s enough reason to mourn.
Even in a culture that declares its rights to abortion and assisted suicide, our instinct towards life endures. Rose Mallinger, a victim of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, was 97 years old. Four other victims were in their 80s. Although these people were in the twilight of life, we mourned them no less. Their murders were just as tragic as the concertgoers in Las Vegas or the school children in Sandy Hook.
Each of us has to find a balance between idolizing human life and taking it for granted. We can grab it greedily and break it—or we can keep it hidden, never appreciating it for the miracle that it is.
Life As a Root Canal
In a few days, I will turn 32. If you’d asked me at 22, I would have told you that I worshiped life. I had everything ahead of me, and I planned to wring every last drop out of this existence that I could. But my joy was not for life itself. It was dependent on what I could get out of it. And when that life failed to live up to my expectations, I did not love it anymore—I cursed it.
Over the next decade, I developed a sanctimonious disdain for my own life. With no expectation of earthly happiness, I thought of it as a trial to be endured. Life was like a root canal: not agony, but not pleasant. I planned to spend my remaining years sitting in the dentist’s chair, staring at my watch, anxiously waiting to get back to the comfort of home. The most I hoped for was a quick procedure and good magazines in the waiting room.
But 31.5 years into the root canal, God called my bluff. With a horrible car accident, I realized how much I did value life. Looking at my shredded tires, broken windshield, and deployed airbags, I marveled at all of the ways I could have died, but did not.
If I had a smaller car, if I were in the next lane over, if someone had been in the car with me, it easily could have been the worst—or last—night of my life. Instead, I had a few bruises and a wrecked car. Through no merit or act of my own, I survived. What did I ever do to deserve such grace?
‘Things Too Wonderful for Us to Know’
Most of us will walk this earth leading full, unremarkable lives. Yet many strong, clear, bright ones are taken—people who might have changed the world. Often the evil persist while the righteous perish.
If you’re an atheist, it’s an arbitrary roll of the dice. If you believe in a merciful God, it is because he, in his inscrutable wisdom, has his reasons. Either way, we must live on. Like Job in his affliction, we are left trying to make sense of things too vast for us to understand.
But whether you believe it was created by an omnipotent God or through the slow progression of evolution, we should not lose our sense of wonder at this inexplicable thing called human life. For though we may be able to trace how the heart pumps blood through the body, we have no explanation for why the system is working one minute, then not the next. What accounts for that eyelash of magic that separates this world from the next?
We Are So Lucky to Be Here
The night of my car accident, I went to bed crying, not out of sorrow, but happiness. A few weeks ago, I cried those same tears at a friend’s wedding. Not in the church like a normal person, but when I saw my friend and her new husband dancing polka to “Roll Out the Barrel.”
Here she was, this sweet Polish-American girl, in her hometown, surrounded by the people who love her, smiling in pure joy as she and her new husband twinkled and spun across the floor. It was a moment as close to heaven as I believe I’ll see on this side of eternity. I cried because I was so humbled that we were all there to be a part of it.
I believe we cry tears of joy because we are grateful. We are humbled because we realize that the joyful thing we have is not certain, not guaranteed. We have the wisdom to see that the greatest things in life are so precarious, so contingent upon any number of events that would have robbed us of this joy. We weep in joy and relief because we can see how narrowly we’ve averted the opposite. In our tears of exultation, we betray our awareness of the fickle nature of fate and how little we control our own lives.
As we lose loved ones, witness suffering, struggle against injustice, and bear suffering, it’s easy to become embittered. We can also turn the other way and embrace a carpe diem, pleasure-driven existence. But it’s only in the middle that we find peace, holding our lives with an open palm—tightly enough to respect its dearness, loosely enough that we’re ready to let it go. But until that moment, we are so lucky, just so lucky to be here.