How, then, shall we live?

When I sat down to write this blog, I had a very different theme in mind. It was light and funny and had to do with writing science fiction. But recent events are weighing heavily on me - earthquakes in Nepal, riots in Baltimore, executions in Indonesia, to name a few. It’s been a difficult few weeks for planet earth and for humanity. Really, if we fast-forward a year, the places and events will be changed, but the essential human experience will be similar, complete with natural disasters, chaos, violence, and hatred. Sometimes it feels like our collective psyche is overwhelmed and nothing we do will make a difference. Our good intentions, words, and deeds are merely a drop of rain in a vast ocean of tears.

When the sorrow of others takes center stage, I am reminded of a question posed to my class (junior or senior year of college) as part of a yearlong reflective process. How, then, shall we live? It is a question for all ages, as relevant now as it was twenty, fifty, a hundred years ago. How, then, shall we live in the face of angry mobs and unforgiving regimes? How, then, shall we live when the earth moves and swallows thousands of people? How, then, shall we live with our own illnesses, heartaches, and personal tragedies? How do we create meaningful lives, filled with hope, when the world around us is as bleak as it ever was?

As the sun finally peeks out and the earth begins to warm up (I live in New England), my optimistic faith in humanity begs to resurface. I find myself meditating on this question once again, and the overarching thought that comes to mind is this: How we live is always a choice. Or, maybe more accurately: No matter the circumstances of our lives, we have a choice in how we respond. So I’ve modified the question a little, and now ask myself, “How, then, shall I choose to live?” And when I’m listening carefully, sometimes an answer appears.

I will choose kindness. An act of kindness, no matter how small, can be transformative. My third son is a baseball player. After his first Little League game last year, he was “called up” from AA to AAA. During one game, a little boy from his old team who had just finished playing on the adjacent field noticed RJ. He excitedly relayed to his dad, “RJ is a big guy and he got the call.” This little boy was chubby and short, wearing glasses as big as his face, and seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin. He’s the kind of kid you know will grow into himself one day, but is most likely having a tough time of it right now. He’s the kind of kid a mom wants to wrap in a hug and protect from the sometimes-cruel world. His sweet dad ruffled his hair and said, “You’re gonna be a big guy someday too. Want to watch RJ for a little while?” They did. And at the end of the inning my son caught sight of this little boy and jogged right to the fence to greet him. “Nice play RJ,” the boy said. And RJ answered, “It means a lot that you came to watch me play. Thanks so much, buddy.” The little boy beamed and I cried behind my sunglasses.

I will embrace my community and tend to my friendships. We humans are social creatures. We need each other. We need each other in times of celebration, but also in times of hardship or tragedy. I belong to two book clubs, a hiking group, and a dinner club. I belong because I love reading, hiking, and eating of course, but I belong because these people are part of my community. In book club, much of the time we discuss books, but we also care for each other during illnesses, support each other during crises, and celebrate each others’ successes. It’s the same with the hiking and dinner group. When I had my fourth child, a wonderful, exhausting, rather hazy time in my life, it was this community of family and friends who cooked my meals, drove my other children to their activities, and cleaned my house. When I have the opportunity to reciprocate for one of them, I do it with great joy.

Almost three years ago, an alumna from our school was killed in an accident. It was a gut wrenching, heart breaking tragedy that devastated our community. Her younger brother was still our student, and the family wanted to have her memorial at the school. The community came together to create a beautiful remembrance for this beautiful girl, and then continued to care for her family over the years. No amount of support can erase this kind of pain, but as a community we can and must help bear each other’s burdens.

I will leave room for redemption. I think perhaps the reason the executions in Indonesia sickened me so much is that it appeared the accused men had truly transformed their lives. They had committed a horrible crime, yes, but had also found a meaningful way to live beyond that crime. Mercy would have allowed good to come from something terrible. It would have allowed for healing instead of immeasurable and irrevocable loss. To give and receive forgiveness is a powerful and uniquely human experience. In our messy, complicated lives, we all require forgiveness. To forgive doesn’t mean to condone, but it does mean we’ve created an opening for redemption.

I will bear witness when I’m called. This is a hard one. When faced with a tragedy, we want to help. Our essential nature calls on us to fix, do, or say something meaningful. But sometimes, in the moment, we are powerless. Or maybe we aren’t. A few years ago I was the first person at the scene of a car accident. In the past I have worked as an EMT and in the Emergency Department of a city hospital, so I always stop even though it’s not my calling anymore. This particular accident was as awful as any I’ve ever encountered. There was nothing to do for the dying victim. No amount of training or miracle of modern medicine was going to save him. When another person arrived on the scene, I made a decision to climb into the backseat of the car and just sit with my hand on the young man’s shoulder as he passed.

Later a friend convinced me I should reach out to the family - that it would be important for them to know what happened in this young man’s final moments. So I sent a sympathy card, and a few days later his wife called. I assured her that her husband was not alone when he passed and he hadn’t suffered. I commented on the softness of his sweater and the color of his hair, so she would know I was really present for him. I told her that all of us on the scene treated him with the care we would want for our own family members. And she said to me, “Thank you. I will tell our baby girl you witnessed his passing when she is old enough to ask.”

I will choose to see goodness in the world. It’s there. This week we adopted a dog from an animal rescue. When it was finally time to pick her up, we waited with a dozen other families in a parking lot for the “Rescue Road Trip” truck to arrive. This amazing team transports rescued pets from all over the country to their adoptive homes. When the animals arrived, nervous and shaking, but with tails wagging, we cheered for each other as we met our new furry family members. A young couple gently carried off a scruffy, scarred older dog, and a mom and daughter team scooped up a tiny pup that’d been abandoned for days at a service station.

Love showed up in that parking lot. And it shows up in far worse circumstances. Teams of aid workers left for Nepal, knowing their own lives could be at risk, and millions of people donated funds in support. When a young girl in our small state was tragically killed in a bus accident, anonymous strangers paid her funeral expenses within hours. In the cold of winter, there is no shortage of volunteers at our neighborhood food pantry and shelters.

It is easy to fall into despair over the state of our world. And in truth, many things are beyond our control. But if we choose to focus only on the darkness, we may miss the profound beauty, truth, compassion, and light that are just as much a part of the human condition as the sorrow.  

How, then, shall we choose to live?