I may be the only person I know who remembers the 1949 film "Home of the Brave," about a soldier recovering from battle fatigue in World War II. His buddy, of a different race, is killed next to him. In the moment of his buddy's death the soldier feels a surge of elation. About which he is burdened with guilt. In the denouement he comes to understand that his reaction is near universal, racial difference or not.
I have lately been suffering similar twinges of guilt, that so many around me, contemporaries and younger, have come upon rough patches in their journey through time to the Father's House; and I have been largely spared. The trigger for this rueful measure of my good fortune was a line in a friend's Email. He has led a vigorous life for years, tennis, travel, gourmet tours of the big city, and developing a connoisseur's taste for fine beer. But physical ailments have arrived at his doorstep suddenly and unexpectedly. The mind and spirit remain strong, but his legs fail him. In this context he wrote to me about me recently: "It must be some comfort to be among the few of us who not only knows how to do useful things, but can actually do them. (I am, alas, now in neither category - for the most part.)"
Well, the parenthetical sentence is typical humility but entirely wrong. His mind is as sharp as the comments he continues to send far and wide to his many friends and family members who have the good sense to engage him in Email correspondence. But his flattery provokes an unwelcome response in my soul.
A sting, unintended, to be sure, in his portrayal of CCRWH, not only able of mind but agile of body. I could demur, cite my knees and thickening eyeglasses. But though I can no longer run the hardwood court and shoot hoops, I can walk a mile at a good clip without limping.
All of Job's friends cannot persuade me that my relatively healthy status is reward for virtue. Others, kinder, more abstemious, more disciplined, more prayerful, wiser, more thoughtful, more spiritual... (well, you get the point) have suffered insults personal and familial which I have been spared. I think of colleagues in the pastoral ministry, like the one who had eagerly looked forward to retirement in an idyllic setting in Bucks County only to die from cancer a few years before saying goodbye to the parish. I think of my baseball buddy whose stroke continues to erode his immense vitality, if not his interest in life and the Mets. I think of the fellow whose ecclesiastical career parallels mine, the father, he is, from whom I received notice a few weeks ago that his son had been stricken with a lethal blood clot.
I could, but won't, widen this litany of sorrow to include the unhappy events in the lives of others I know well and you may also.
So when I look to heaven and ask that question voiced persistently in moments of tragedy, now raised in perplexity, "Why me?" I feel like that soldier boy with whom this essay began. Perhaps I should take to heart the comment the late Bill Coffin, preacher and crusader extraordinary, offered a friend who phoned him with the complaint, "This has been the worst day of my life." Bill replied, "How do you know?" Maybe the best is yet to come. Or, more likely, the rough justice of life's exigencies will eventually balance out.
Life is like a minefield. We essay through it as best we can avoiding the obvious traps, taking Lipitor, diversifying investments, buying new tires before the old ones are worn bald, locking the windows and doors of the house, avoiding crowds in winter and bright sun in summer, these and most of the prudent habits of longevity. But explosions erupt around us and sometimes overtake us despite our most careful precautions. That - life is uncertain - is one of the messages my friend and mentor observed when pressed to explain the deathly consequences of the fall of the Tower of Siloam.
That friend and mentor also advises you and me, maybe especially me, to take life as it comes at you a day at a time, be grateful for it, and cherish those who travel with you. And shelve the guilt; guilt can be, as mine probably is, just another self-justifying attitude.