Monday, July 13, 2015

Of Course Good People Die Young

Being a physical coward, my initial reaction to news of crimes is wanting to go hide my head in a hole and never come out again.  Well, perhaps never coming out of my apartment would be a reasonable compromise.  My husband can bring the groceries home, right?  But then there’s daily Mass, which entails either a three mile walk (for the WonderBread parish) or a ten minute drive (for the half perpetual adoration parish).  And once you’ve reconciled yourself to walking for an hour along the highway or driving anywhere, you might as well get ready to die anyway.  At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Part of my cowardice (and the concomitant nonchalance about what would, if they were allowed to grow, be paralyzing fears) is no doubt normal to being female.  Part of it doubtless has to do with my having always been a bookworm and a weenie since childhood.

If I had only swum more laps during practice, I would be a fearless harridan today.
Maybe even a feminist with big shoulders.

And there is probably some genetic predisposition towards being a scaredy cat which even the properest training or the purest motives could not fully eradicate.  Fortunately, one can do brave and even foolhardy things while in an intense state of fear.  And perhaps, sometimes, acting in this manner is (as Aristotle would suggest) the surest way to conquer those fears and develop a natural human habit of virtue with regard to danger.

“I am a coward, doctor.”

But setting gender, habits, and genetic predisposition aside, some degree of fear of sudden death—particularly sudden death at the hands of another human being—seems wholesome.  There is a reason we pray to St. Joseph for a provided death.  What we are asking for is not death at an old age, or death with all our loved ones around (though those petitions are desirable and the having of them seems laudable from a humane as well as a human perspective).  Rather, we are asking for a death in which we are sufficiently conscious and properly disposed to give up life, as Christ did.  Ideally and normatively this means death in the presence of the Sacraments; but obviously God may choose to bestow sufficient grace for a good death under any circumstances.

Still, while God tends to give grace to anyone who asks for it (cf. the parable of the workers who came late to the market), we do not often remember to ask for it unless we have a fixed habit of doing so.  Those of us whose first tendency, upon meeting with anything unexpected, is to utter a silent, wordless prayer are likely to do so when death suddenly stares them in the face, while those of us whose tendency is to habitually joke about or lash out at unwelcome surprises may find ourselves at a loss.  Of those two tendencies, of course, the joke is usually the more healthy; but I doubt whether it should be the habitual ideal—certainly, treating one’s own misfortunes merely as jokes without also offering them up seems like a missed opportunity.

I have no idea whether or not Kevin Sutherland or Kathryn Steinle were in the habit of uttering pious ejaculations—probably, given the rarity of the practice, they were not.  And certainly the kind things which family and friends have said about both of them in the wake of their sudden deaths may in part be attributed to the tendency which we all have to speak well of—indeed, to eulogize—the dead.

Nevertheless, I take some comfort in the fact that both Sutherland and Steinle seem to have been kind and perhaps even good people.  Steinle’s much-quoted Facebook post, “Whatever’s good for your soul … do that,” seems to epitomize not a wasted life, but the life of someone who was ready to die, maybe even someone who was disposed, in the face of sudden violent death, to react with internal grace rather than with anger.

That, I think, is really what I am really afraid of when I hear a story of the latest violent crime.  Not of dying, but of dying with anger towards the person who killed me.  Earthquakes, fires, floods, and martyrdom would be comparatively easy to deal with.  The former cases involve impersonal forces which by definition act without reason of their own; the latter case involves persons with strong reasons for what they are doing—and reasons which, by definition, turn the victims into victors.  But an accidental shooting, or one committed in the course of an attempted robbery?  What a waste.

Unless, you have learned to habitually understand the world as one in which nothing is wasted—i.e., unless you are ready to die.  I suppose, as a coward, I could find comfort in the fact that I am not.  But that would be the wrong takeaway, wouldn’t it?

St. Joseph, patron of a happy death, pray for us.


  1. It's nice to see you posting again. And on a cheery topic as per normal. ;)

    I think the underlying theme though - awareness that God is ruling the world - is one that many Catholics would do well to learn to depend on.
    I have an anecdote to that effect - ask me next time you see me.