Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"Why Does This Keep Happening To Us?"

Red Rain - Michael Stipe, Natalie Merchant & Peter Gabriel (live) (mp3)
Armed Forces Medley - Bands of the Armed Forces (mp3)

That was the question posed to me over the phone yesterday by a junior in college, a boy I advised while he was a student at my school. A third member of his high school graduating class died tragically over the weekend. The news just reached him and his friends that night as they were out partying, and he called and left a message in a bewildered and awkward and inebriated voice.

Three years out of high school, three classmates dead. The latest, a baffling, random (and non-alcohol-related) tragedy overseas.

I just finished Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner, bombardier and Japanese POW during WWII. It only seemed right to wrap up the remainder of the book over the holiday weekend.

On Sunday, I sat in the beautiful outdoor Brevard Music Center for their annual Independence Day concert and was moved to tears as literally hundreds of men and women stood during their playing of the Armed Forces Medley.

Each branch offered an impressive showing, as Brevard is a beloved retirement location, and the folks who attend BMC events naturally skew older anyway. But when the Army song played, it felt as if half the crowd stood, as if we were suddenly overrun with members and family members of the US Army, and anyone who is in the midst of Hillenbrand’s book can’t help but feel it.

Hundreds of unknown, untold, sometimes un-uttered stories in the minds of those men, thousands more stories of the women and children left behind at home.

“Why does this keep happening to us?”

This is not a newly-discovered cry. It is a cry as old as humankind, and the asking of it is almost a rite of passage into the world of growing up.

At 11:15 p.m. on Monday, our rednecky neighbors were headed into their third hour of fireworks. They must have spent $1,000 or more on stuff, because these were big, booming barrages of sound and spectacle, an impressive if low-rent version of what you see in bigger shows. And they were firing them, quite literally, in a field not 50 yards from our back deck. So we needed only look straight up to see them.

One daughter came to our room in tears because she was exhausted and couldn’t sleep for the booms and crackles. The protective parent in me was livid, and between curse words muttered under my breath, I swore that they were getting a call from me if one more *#@^& boom hit over our house after 11:30. And then I stared at my watch, counting the seconds and breathing through my nostrils like an agitated bull.

Then I thought of Unbroken. And my anger subsided.

Children all the world over go to sleep every night to the sound of gunshots, artillery fire, explosions. Not fireworks, but real honest-to-God threats to their lives and their safety. Yet they must somehow find a way to close their eyes, drown out the sounds, and attempt to sleep.

One weekend a year, we must endure this symbolic ritual that, when done right, serves as a reminder of how relatively easy and comfy we have it, even when things go badly, even when life keeps taking dumps on our heads. It serves as a reminder that real men and women, time and again, century after century, choose to risk their lives, their bodies, and their minds, so that our highly flawed yet amazing country might renew its own reality show for another season. It is a heroism snot-nosed punks like me simply cannot grasp in full.

I do not mean to trivialize the pain of my young college friends as they struggle with tragedy after tragedy. I do not mean to mock or minimize the frustration of an exhausted 9-year-old as she is shaken and scared by the window-rattling booms of an overly enthusiastic, borderline pyromaniac family of neighbors.

But one cannot read of the experiences and trevails of Louis Zamperini, and one cannot read of the statistics and historical facts Hillenbrand offers about World War II, without gaining, within the hearing of these contemporary tragedies and contemporary child anxieties, a bit of gratitude and perspective.

Bad things keep happening to us because we’re alive. It won’t stop until we’re through.

As Zamperini found, with the help of a certain little-known evangelist who shares my first name, we either let the bad things destroy us, or we scratch and claw and fight and do whatever it takes to see that we grow stronger by enduring them.

It’s easier to remember this when the storms are way out on the horizon or drenching friends or neighbors, far easier to forget when the clouds pour down all around you.

1 comment:

Daisy said...

A beautifully moving post and a great reminder of just how fortunate we are.