It is very easy to fall into the trap of speaking boldly about defying or otherwise meeting serious challenges before ever experiencing the reality of their consequences. As in so many other things, St. Peter exemplified this very common human imperfection when he pledged his total loyalty to Jesus before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion:
“But (Peter) said to Him, ‘Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!’ And He said, ‘I say to you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me.’” -Luke 22:33-34
Of course, Jesus knew better because he had thoroughly vetted his disciples, particularly the twelve who would become his apostles. And, sure enough, Peter fell away and fled when he was confronted about his participation in Jesus’ ministry. It didn’t mean that Peter was disingenuous about his feelings when he proclaimed he would follow Jesus, even if it meant his own death. What it did suggest was that Peter had not realistically embraced the realities associated with such self-sacrifice until he met them face-to-face.
We do the same things today. The examples are endless. No doubt, many who support the death penalty would cower from pulling the switch or the trigger after witnessing the human body twitch and quiver in the death throes. Everyone wants a war on crime…unless it’s their car that gets impounded, their business that gets cited or their kid that gets arrested. Everyone cheers the young enthusiastic cop, until the complaints begin, and then they wonder if he’s not being too aggressive. Everyone backs a strong military to secure the nation’s defense, until the cost of new hardware comes due. Homeland security gets a hard thumbs-up, until someone suggests our private phone and Internet communications could be monitored.
Listen to those who talk about the threats of nuclear annihilation made by North Korea. I assure you, if we truly understood the consequences of a nuclear exchange, we wouldn’t be so dismissive and would have been much more aggressive in keeping those weapons from ever falling into the hands of such enemies. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are more like fairy tales than harsh reality to us. Most Americans have already suffered memory loss after the attacks of 9/11, much less the horrors of events over 70 years ago. Imagine the world’s real response when a nuke actually goes off. How angry will we be with the inept efforts beforehand?
Armchair critics abound on everything from the use of force by police officers to plays made by their favorite sports heroes. I guarantee you there would be fewer of those if more of us had been faced with assaults by those fully committed to our destruction…either on the streets or on the gridiron. Try taking on a drug frenzied maniac trying to rip your eyes out of their sockets or a 300 pound monster being paid tens of thousands of dollars to drive the air out of your lungs, and then come tell me how you would do it better.
There’s nothing like personal experience to slap a little pragmatism into our worldview. Like millions of others, I too have heard the words, “You have cancer.” When I first heard them, I was still coming out of the anesthesia that had put me out during a colonoscopy. So the full impact didn’t hit me until I got home and came a bit more to my senses. The reality of what was to come…or the fear of what I thought was coming…drove a cold spike through my heart. I had seen close family members die of the disease and assumed the worst at the time. I had been a police officer for over 25 years and was accustomed to contemplating my own mortality. But when the very real prospect of my own death was presented to me in very tangible terms, it was a whole different story. I desperately wanted to escape the inescapable.
I subsequently experienced the savagery of major surgery, chemo, and radiation treatments. I watched as other patients endured their own earthborn hell around me at doctor offices and treatment centers. Many of those people I met are no longer here. Two of the three good friends who stood close by while I went through my personal crisis are also gone…victims of their own battles with cancer. And the third is now struggling with his own serious medical challenge. These life experiences bring the classical lessons I shrugged off in my youth into focus:
“Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” -John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, 1624
I have no illusions about the frailty of life or the eventual demise of my own. Indeed, you can become so afraid of death that you become afraid of living. But live we must and the evidence of its brevity drives me to make the best of what is left…whatever time God has granted me. It also makes me desperate to see my sons make the best of theirs, avoiding needless pain and regrets. I can get so concerned that sometimes I want to take command of their tillers and bark commands like a crazed Captain Ahab to steer a course around life’s shallow reefs.
But that’s not practical and certainly unwanted by young men who have been raised to be independent. So I try to be a good navigator or pilot instead, making what recommendations I think are wise and useful…just like my dad did for me before he was called away too soon. Man, I could have used his guidance in the years since.
This is certainly not to say we should overemphasize the inherent risks in life. Jesus cautioned against institutionalized paranoia as unhealthy and something that could lead to it’s own undesirable paralysis:
“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end.” –Mark 13:7
Better, I think, that we follow his advice on handling our deepest fears and resulting anxiety with realistic moderation without abandoning well-founded caution. Foresight still has its own reward:
“So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” -Matthew 6:34
He assures us tomorrow is not promised, but still encourages us to be prudent:
“Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour.” –Matthew 25:13
There are things well outside my circle of influence that are beyond my control—no matter how astute my observations may be. My friends and I routinely solve the world’s problems over a cup of coffee or well poured adult beverage. But the White House has yet to call for our input. That doesn’t preclude us from independent thought and properly sieved opinions, nor from expressing them in unison with other like-minded geniuses. It also helps to hone reasonable responses to problems encountered as we navigate our intimate lives…things that do respond to careful nudging of our own tillers now and then.