The Saratoga Sun -

By Joe Elder 

The hardest task falls to the living


In 1642, John Donne wrote the following words: “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main ... Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Donne was familiar with death. He wrote the above words six years before the end of the Thirty Years War, a war between Catholics and Protestants which claimed 8,000,000 lives by combat and disease.

In those old days, death was never more than a yell away. We humans didn’t have the sophisticated weapons to kill each other then that we do now, but it didn’t slow us much.

Back then, disease and infection outclassed all killers of humans. Very few parents saw all of their children reach adulthood. Until the 20th century, that was normal.

Abraham Lincoln, while he was President and in the midst of the worst war this nation has ever fought, watched his 11-year old son, Willie die of what was likely typhoid fever.

It has never been easy to watch children die. It never will be. But at least when kids died of disease, parents knew what was coming. After growing up and watching their siblings, their cousins and friends die, they lived with a sense of the inevitable when it came to their own children.

The parents of the children killed in Connecticut did not live with the irrevocable sense that their children might not reach the age of 8.

In an era when the number one killer of people is age-related ailments, the Connecticut parents lived with a 21st century innocence, expecting that their children would live to bury them.

Last week, as a nation, we lost a part of ourselves and a piece of our innocence. As rational beings, we want to know why things happen they way they do.

That curiosity leads to discoveries both wondrous and ordinary. Finding cause also helps us to understand the course of events and thereby aids in our grieving.

But there is no way to find purpose in the deliberate killing of children. Our only recourse is to relegate the purpose to God and try to bind up what has been washed away.

Meanwhile, we will wring our hands over ways to solve the problem of mass killings. We will look for answers in gun control laws.

We will blame a medical culture and insurance industry that is unresponsive to mental illness and look for ways to diagnose, treat and support mental diseases earlier and more effectively.

We will cry for more security until all of our public places are guarded by the government. We might even outsource our safety to private companies who will guard the highest bidder.

We will call for more personal accountability. But in order to be accountable, we must preserve some measure of freedom. An unfree man cannot be accountable.

We must take care to preserve the balance between security and freedom and remember the words of Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Death will always find a way. As people who lived before the 20th century knew, and as we still know, death does not discriminate.

We are mortal and we have always lived with disease, violence, and accidents.

We have, as Isaac Newton said, stood on the shoulders of giants and made great discoveries that explain the ways death reaches us.

We will never flush all of the mystery out of death or map out all the motives for the actions of men.

In the wake of inexplicable horror, the hardest task falls to the living, who in the throes of confusion and grief must remain rational and vigilant toward the consequences of overreaction.

Words cannot resurrect the dead, but they can sometimes provide a way for us to share a burden. We can acknowledge the pain of a small community in Connecticut.

By doing so, we remain together as a people and give those suffering the small, comforting knowledge that they are not alone. It may be that is all we can do.

In his simple way, Lincoln captured the helpless suffering a parent feels at the death of a child, when he said of his own son’s death, “My poor boy ... it is hard, hard to have him die.”


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