A Terrible, Teachable Moment

David Stokes
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Posted: Apr 16, 2013 10:51 AM
A Terrible, Teachable Moment

Wherever the investigation into what happened yesterday in Boston leads, my first reactions were likely in sync with those of most Americans hearing the news. My niece was in running in the Boston Marathon this year and I immediately wanted to reach out and find out if she and her family were safe. They were. She had finished long before, in the top tier of runners.

Then I watched and listened as those moments of terror were reviewed again and again. I prayed. I posted. I tweeted.

Now, a day later, I am still praying for those who have lost life or limb. I also pray for those investigating this sordid act of anarchism. And along with the rest us, I want to know two things—who and why.

I also have this recurring thought about how human nature’s default condition is lethargy and indifference, until brutally awakened. Then, it’s only a matter of time before “normal” (whatever that is) returns, accompanied by the onset of drowsiness.

I hope it’s not too soon to say this. I do not mean to take any attention away from those who need our prayers and encouragement, but Thomas Jefferson and others long ago reminded us that, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” The Apostle Peter wrote to first century Christians about being vigilant because of the perpetual and destructive activity of the devil himself. In the Greek language, the word vigilance carries the idea of “watchfulness” or “keeping awake.”

I think something C.S. Lewis said at Oxford University in the autumn of 1939, shortly after the onset of the Second World War, speaks directly on point and to our times. He shared a talk called, Learning in Wartime:

I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The [terrorism] creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If [people] had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life." Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.

Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have "chosen" a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. [People] are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache: it is our nature.

[Terrorism] makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centered in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise [person] can realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows. We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it. If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered. If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul...we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon. But if we thought that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we hope to enjoy hereafter, we can think so still.

Lewis later shared similar thoughts, at the government’s request, to a national audience on the BBC.

In a time of war, you don’t make your side safe by marginalizing the conflict, minimizing the threat, or demoralizing those who are charged with crucial responsibilities.

In the century before the birth of Jesus Christ, a Syrian man named Publilius Syrus, who became popular in the days of Julius Caesar as a mime and actor, was known for his maxims and many survive to this day. Among the best is this:

He is most free from danger, who, even when safe, is on his guard.

In July of 1927, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx was the scene of a boxing match between two contenders for the heavyweight title: Jack Dempsey and Jack Sharkey.

Dempsey, of course, had already been a legendary champ, only beaten the year before by savvy boxer and bookworm, Gene Tunney – the smartest guy ever to hold the title. This fight was to see who would face Tunney next. And by all accounts Sharkey took the battle to Dempsey for several rounds, cutting him up and beating him to the punch.

So Dempsey went to work on the body and some of the punches strayed low. Okay, several of the punches were south of the border. And at one point Sharkey turned to the referee to complain. At that moment, while Sharkey was looking at the official, Dempsey hit him with what he later referred to as the best punch he’d ever thrown. It was over just like that.

My point? When in a fight, protect yourself at all times.