Sunday, December 09, 2007

Life: A View from Omaha

There have been numerous topics which I've wanted to write about in the last couple of weeks, but unfortunately, my schedule has not lent itself to doing so. There is a season for everything under the sun, as they say, and apparently I am in the summer of my insanity. And by insanity I mean general craziness, and not mental illness. Although perhaps there are some who would say that the line between the two is sketchy, at best.

At any rate, this last week has brought some things to my attention, and I thought I would write a little down before the ideas escaped, uncaptured, in to the past.

As I'm sure many of you heard, there was an awful tragedy in Omaha, NE this week when a disturbed young man opened fire in a busy shopping mall, killing eight people. He then took his own life. I suppose it was natural for those who knew that I was from Omaha to ask me if everyone (meaning friends, family, etc) was OK. On one hand the question seems a little silly. I mean, Omaha is a very large city, and the odds of one of my friends or family members being among those who were shot seem almost astronomical. And yet, all of those people were the friends and/or family of SOMEONE, so that got me thinking....

When I was in my early 20's, working in the corporate world, trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life, the question that finally got me to leave the comfort of that well-paying but unsatisfying career was this: If I died tomorrow, would I be able to feel good about how I was living today? I mention this now because there was a reason that I asked myself that question in the first place. It occured to me that we all carry around this idea that we're going to live to be 80 years old. And the fact is, we aren't guaranteed to even wake up tomorrow morning.

Of course, the psychological stress that we would be under if we were constantly aware of our own fragility and mortality would be unbearable, which is probably why we live with the delusion in the first place. It helps us function. It keeps us from 'freaking out.'

And yet I think it's important to be vigilant in challenging ourselves with that question, because it's only when we are operating from that brutal sense of Reality that we can start making the decisions that matter.

You might think it merely a philosophical issue, but I can tell you this...those eight people who died that day in the Westroads Mall had no idea that that was how their day was going to play out.

A number of years ago, when I worked in the ER at Harborview Medical Center, it occured to me that all of those people who came in to the ER were, just prior to their death or injury or medical emergency, all just living their normal lives, doing what they do, just like you and I do every day...until something went very wrong. Our ideas of being in an accident, or getting shot, or whatever else, are misconceptualized because the "experience" we have of them is more often than not mediated via the television or the movies. And what we aren't realizing is that the way we see it on TV ( or at the movies) is from a third person perspective...and quite often from an omniscient third person perspective. We see both the potential victim AND the intruder with the gun, the camera flashes at both the car of unsuspecting people AND the out of control semi-truck racing down the highway. We hear the music change, we know the plot. We anticipate it. We know it's coming. In so many ways our experience of these things has no resemblance to reality whatsoever.

If we use the Washington D.C. sniper as an example...from a first person perspective, those people who were killed were just filling their cars with gas one minute, and the next minute...well, there was no next minute. There was no mental processing of the event. There was no anticipation. There was no thinking about loved ones, or things they wanted to do before they died. It was just over. Just like that.

I know that some people will think that writing about this is a little depressing. But I choose to think that more than anything, it has the potential to be liberating. Lift off the veil. Embrace reality. Define your life, and decide what is important to you. Live with as much integrity as you can. Express your love to those close to you. And perhaps most especially, appreciate the time that you have here.

So as you go about your hectic life, be mindful of the larger picture. And live not necessarily like there is no tomorrow, but rather in a way that if there was indeed no tomorrow, you could be ok with how you were living today. Everyone's version will look different from everyone else's. The key is to find what that way is for YOU. And in this way, we honor both life and death.

Finally, my condolences to all of the friends and families of those who walked in but not out of the mall that day in Omaha.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Naomi Shihab Nye
from The Words Under the Words: Selected Poems