I sat on the dining room floor with my 13-month-old daughter. The slider door was open and fresh air wafted through the screen. She pressed the button on her musical toy and it played one of its regular melodies, but she looked out onto the backyard and our neighborhood. I handed her a piece of waffle, and she accepted it and put it in her mouth. I rested my head on the door and watched her chew thoughtfully.
This is so wonderful, I thought. Life is so good. I am so lucky.
I scooped her up, grabbed my coffee from the counter, and moved us into the living room. I opened the curtains and turned on the television. Instead of the normal cheeriness and upbeat music that often defines “The Today Show,” blood red graphics splattered the screen. They read “Mass Shooting in Las Vegas.” Matt Lauer reported more than 50 people were dead. Savannah Guthrie’s wide eyes and frowned lips spoke louder than her voice. Another tragedy. Another large group of innocent people were dead.
This on the heels of not one, not two, but three devastating hurricanes in the course of a month, leaving island nations leveled, people homeless, more innocent people dead.
I admit, I felt instantly guilty about my happiness when I saw the news that morning. Here I was waking up to love, to comfort, to safety, to a day at home with my sweet and precious child, when so many were waking up to heartbreak, to injury, to trauma, to no more days at home with their sweet and precious children.
It’s a hard balance to find--how to be happy when so many sad things are happening around us. Even if we are able to find that happiness, it may lead to guilt. “Why do I get to be happy when so many others don’t get that chance?”
I’ve spent much of the past seven weeks since my cancer diagnosis focusing on myself, figuring out how I can move on to a healthier, happier life. To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve even been capable of taking on the burden of the tragedies that have happened around me. Again, here I feel guilt, because I have the choice, where those involved in Las Vegas and those who were in the paths of the hurricanes had no choice, have no choice on whether or not they can take on the burden. They take on the burden every second of every day as they attempt to piece their lives back together.
Yet everyone’s loss and devastation is relative. I was talking with a friend yesterday whose mother lives in Puerto Rico. When I asked how her mother was doing, she said she was doing good, surprisingly. Her house weathered the storm--luckily, she lives where there’s some elevation, so she didn’t really have to worry about flooding. She doesn’t have running water, but my friend sent her a bunch of water filters before the storm hit, so she can use those. She doesn’t have power, but she has a generator, though it runs on propane and costs her $30 a day to run. But compared to many others on the island, she is not doing bad at all. Things could be much worse. Things are much worse for many of her fellow islanders.
I am not a religious person, so I have no God to blame. I don’t believe that a greater being is picking on Puerto Rico or has a vendetta against the 58 that were killed in Las Vegas. Last week I learned that someone I knew in high school also had cancer and died from it. My first initial thought was, “Why her and not me? Why am I special? Why did I get to live?” I’m sure that is a question everyone asks sometime or another. I’m sure that’s a question my friend’s mother asks. I’m sure that’s a question the thousands of people who got to live in Las Vegas ask.
But in my opinion, we are not special. We are just lucky. It could have been me instead of her. Of course it could have. Some random event in time or some random bodily function somehow made my cancer more detectable, more survivable than hers. Some random event in time, some random bodily function saved thousands of people in Las Vegas. Pure dumb luck.
Even if you are religious and you believe God has a plan that you couldn’t possibly know, there’s a certain lack of control involved. You can’t control luck. You can’t control God. This is what happens and you can’t do anything to change it.
And yet we feel sad for those who die for no reason. And we feel guilty for not only getting to live our lives, but to prosper at them.
So how do we make sense of this? How do we assuage our guilt? Are we allowed to be happy with so many horrifying things happening around us?
It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that we can’t control others. As still a newish parent, not being able to control my daughter is a lesson I feel like I have to learn every day. So I start with myself. I can control what I do. I can convince myself to be patient when she’s acting up, but I can’t stop her from acting up. I can give her all the tools she needs to fall asleep at night, but I can’t make her sleep. I can provide her with a safe home, but I can’t keep harm from ever coming to her.
The same can be said for the world. I can’t stop mentally unstable or racist people from opening fire on a crowd of innocent people, but I can be vocal about my desire to have stronger gun laws and more available mental health care. I can’t stop a hurricane from destroying an island, but I can be wise about my own carbon footprint, encourage others to be more conscious about their environmental practices, and make my state representatives know I want them to pay attention to climate change. I can’t keep cancer from coming back, but I can take better care of myself.
So I suppose my sadness for horrible things happening around the world could serve as a catalyst for change. I hope it does, anyhow. I hope people are watching the news footage and feeling sad, because that means they care about their fellow man. And if they care, maybe they’ll want to try to stop more bad things from happening, even if we can’t stop ALL bad things from happening.
I turned off the television and picked up my daughter, giving her a big kiss and a happy smile. Today we are safe and we are happy. My love for her fills my heart. But the sadness around the world stays on my mind.