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A reminder of the extraordinary fragility of our lives


Thirty-seven years ago this weekend, Jan. 28, 1986, those of us watching live TV coverage of the launch of the space shuttle Challenger saw people die in a massive explosion (pictured above). One of the dead was a teacher named Christa McAuliffe.

I was watching a TV in the newsroom of The Kansas City Star, where I was an editorial page columnist at the time. Almost immediately David Zeeck, then a news editor, came over to me to ask if I'd write a front-page commentary for that afternoon's paper.

Cover-lle-hi-resI quickly put some words together that had something to do with life's uncertain length and with what national grief might look like, though my memory of the piece is that it wasn't very profound.

It was, however, something of a practice run for a similar front-page piece I had to write after the 9/11 terrorist attacks 15-plus years later. In the 9/11 case, it turned out that I was among those directly affected, given that the son of one of my sisters was on the first plane to smash into the World Trade Center. You can find that story told in my latest book, Love, Loss and Endurance: A 9/11 Story of Resilience and Hope in an Age of Anxiety.

As Americans, we have been victims of many more deadly catastrophes since then, including mass shootings galore, and we have caused others to experience such catastrophes through our engagement in several wars.

But I'm not at all sure that we have absorbed the lesson about the fragility of life. Many of us, myself included, seem to live at times as if death were optional -- or at least something that couldn't possibly find us today or this week.

Maybe it is impossible truly to live flourishing lives if we are so focused on the possibility of our death today that we simply can't move forward in healthy ways. And yet we take so many foolish risks. We drive our cars at reckless (but not wreckless) speeds. We buy guns and leave them unsecured in our houses. We continue to add to the dangerous warming of the planet in ways that already are proving catastrophic and ways that imagine nature is under our control rather than acknowledging that we ourselves are part of nature. We fill our diets with a crop that made the slave trade both profitable and widespread -- sugar. (And by "we" in the preceding sentences, I include myself.)

Some days I think we'd all be wiser if we walked around with this message plainly displayed on our foreheads: "Life is fragile. Don't mistreat it." Or this: "Life requires taking risks -- just not stupid ones."

Maybe I'll get some tee shirts bearing such messages, but printed in a way I can read them properly in a mirror.

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My late December Flatland column, found here, was about the national "He Gets Us" campaign that tries to introduce people to Jesus. The campaign funding comes through a donor-advisor company in Overland Park, Kan. Now this Religion News Service story reports that the campaign plans to spend not just the $100 million I mentioned in my column but more like $1 billion over the next three years. And among the people putting up the money is David Green, the billionaire co-founder of Hobby Lobby. He and his family were also major supporters of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which I wrote about here in 2017 because of its Kansas City connections. If you had $1 billion to spend on a faith-based project of some kind, what would you do with it? I'm pretty sure I wouldn't sink a chunk of it into TV ads to be seen on the broadcast of the Super Bowl. But maybe that's just me.


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