Eighteen years ago this month, I wrote my very first column. My wife, Becky, still insists that it was my very best column.
Her claim puzzles me.
“Does that mean they became worse after that?”
She has no answer. So I’ll ask you to judge.
The following is my first column, abridged, from Oct. 5, 2001, when editor Tom Clifford, then of Florida Today, asked me to pen a spiritual response to the terror attacks of Sept. 11.
When everything changed
Our culture has made job safety an art form so that most of us do our jobs without much risk.
From puberty, we learn contraception, rape prevention and AIDS awareness. We host prevention conventions. We wear hats, helmets and seat belts. 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, everything changed. Aboard four different aircraft, it didn’t help anyone to know how to buckle seat belts, operate breathing masks or use seat cushions as flotation devices. No exit-aisle lights led passengers to safety.
Now, we are doubling our efforts to pursue the ever-evasive idea of safety. If you fly, you must 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 no matter what we do, most of us know death can come in the most unexpected ways at unimaginable speed. I learned that lesson in a profound way one afternoon in 1995 when I watched a mother follow her 3-year-old son into our Houston hospital emergency room.
The staff greeted the parents with our usual game of 20 questions we play with trauma patients. You see, if we could identify at least two or three stupid things that the victim had done, then we would assure ourselves that there was no way anything this tragic could happen to us.
Then the facts began clouding our judgment. Facts are tricky that way. Mom had taken her son on a play date to a beautifully swept tennis court in an exclusive metropolitan suburb. The court was supervised, gated, cleaned and staffed by background-checked employees.
“Can I take off my shoes, Mommy?”
“Sure,” she replied.
He began exploring his environment and kicking at the tennis fence. This was fun.
“I’m in a giant playpen with mommy,” he must have 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, the 3-year-old kicked the fence near an outdoor outlet that wasn’t properly grounded. The fence was electrified. Standing barefoot on a court damp from morning rain, the little boy’s 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 we use the incidents of 2001 to propel us back to Orwell’s 1984 and fill our streets with more cameras than a voyeuristic website, I think we must ask ourselves a few questions.
- How can we balance our need for safety with our need to be free?
- To what degree is death 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 9/11 have ushered in a new reality. They say 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; McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Calif.; 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 unquestionably closer than we think, and on Sept. 11, 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 judgment.” The teaching admonishes us to live our lives the way we would if we knew with certainty that death was 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 prophet Jeremiah 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 also will have succeeded in toppling the foundation of a peaceful society. Death is close, but life can be closer.
I choose life.