• Loss of Former Student Provokes Anger and Sadness

    • Posted on Aug 12, 2007


    Over the years I’ve grieved for the loss of loved ones, friends, colleagues, and former students whom I remembered fondly.

    Grief itself offers major challenges, and I’ve always struggled with it. Trying to cope with loss and death humbles us all, mostly because death seems so final, so permanent. On the death of a beloved kitten, an overwhelmed poet once wrote, “How could this small body hold so immense a thing as death?”  

    Even the death of someone known for only a short while provokes powerful responses.  So it was with me last week when I came upon a recent student’s final paper for a film class.  I hadn’t graded it, nor had I handed it back.  I thought this was odd until I saw the student’s name. 

    I searched my e-mails, and found that he had written me in April of 2006, reminding me that he had to leave class early “because I have military training I have to attend.  He went on, “For the final test, I will stay in contact with you through e-mail, so hopefully I will be able to take it during the summer.”

    I never heard from him again, but I did hear about him. 

    Early last February, a story appeared in the Courier that an Iowa soldier had been killed in Iraq.  He had arrived in Iraq in early fall of 2006, and was assigned to clear roadside bombs when his armored vehicle was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.  So my former student was killed in action fighting in Iraq. 

    I’ve been pondering his death all week.  My first response:  What a waste, what a loss. Brian (not his real name) was clearly a solid student, conscientious, a leader, more than willing to do his part.  But was he protected enough in that “armored” vehicle?  Should he have even been over there, nation-building, dying from getting caught in an Iraqi civil war?  I couldn’t help but feel downright angry, given what seems to be an utterly botched mission.

    Yet Brian was evidently felt he had good reason to be there.  He called home weekly to speak to his family.  From those calls, his mother was quoted as saying that her son had found his purpose and liked what he was doing. 

    So I had to remind myself that this young student chose his career in the military, and when he spoke to me briefly about it in class in early April, he certainly seemed matter-of-fact about it. No fear, no worry, no sense of being forced. 

    So if he felt justified and believed in the military mission, that’s enough, right?  After all, any of us can get killed in random ways without any seeming purpose at all. A bridge collapse, a car accident, a heart attack, cancer.  Death stalks us all.

    It’s certainly some consolation that he died feeling he had a purpose and his brave work clearing roadside bombs had evidently saved lives.   

    Yet does this justify his death?    

    I hope I’m wrong, but unless some miracle causes the Iraqis to stop killing each other over their sectarian differences and start to appreciate our sacrifice and get used to having us occupying their country, Iraq seems destined to descend into violent chaos.  And there’s nothing we can do to stop or change it.

    As so many observers have concluded, including some members of our own military, the conflict can’t be won by force, and before our soldiers can help the Iraqis establish a peaceful country, the Iraqis must settle their deep ideological/religious differences. Until then, they will kill each other and any occupiers willy-nilly.

    Just by being there, we’re creating a nation of refugees and inciting terrorists all over the Middle East, not to mention providing them with an active training ground. The Iraq war has been a huge gift to Islamic terrorists.

    So my heart goes out to all the Brians out there and their grieving families.  We appreciate their sacrifice, but at the same time wonder why our young men and women continue to get maimed and killed for what now seems a lost cause.

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  • We Need Little, But Want Everything

    • Posted on May 15, 2005


    Cell phones, cell phones, everywhere, and not a one worth listening to, usually. Yet we spend small fortunes buying, replacing, and using them. 

    We also erect squatty towers which radiate microwave signals throughout the land and blight the countryside.

    Do we really need cell phones?  Truth be told, rarely, at least most of us.

    Do we want them?  Yes, big time.  I’ve owned one for years now, actually several models, changed companies, and take or make maybe four useful or helpful calls a month. At forty bucks a month, those are expensive calls.

    So I don’t need a cell phone, but want one, just in case of emergency, I tell myself.   
    The older I get, the less I need, but the more I seem to want.

    Now for reasons I’ll explain shortly, I’m questioning both my needs and wants. 

    I don’t need much food, for example.  A bowl of cereal in the morning, a sandwich at lunch, soup for supper will do. But I want far more:  Steaks, fresh salads with creamy dressings, good wine, maybe lobster with hot lemon butter, hot breads, gourmet side dishes, eggs, bacon, desserts, iced caramel double espresso with whipped cream, thank you very much.  

    If I ate what I wanted I’d outgrow my wardrobe in a month.

    Or my new SUV, a shiny and intelligently designed Honda Pilot.  I really don’t need it.  I could get by with a car a third its size. I just didn’t want to.

    I don’t need satellite TV, except for occasional movies that I can use for class. Maybe one a month comes along.  But I wanted it.  Every time I get that monthly bill I wonder whether I really need all this TV coming into my house, especially when I actually watch it so little. But it’s there, just in case.  A want that became a need.  

    Nor do I need both a nylon and steel string guitar, but needed—no, wanted—them both.

    Now I’m beginning to feel guilty, wanting and having so much of what I really don’t need. 

    I’m also convinced I’m not alone.  Most of us get at least some of what we want whether we actually need it or not.   Kids can’t imagine living without their video games, Ipods, DVD players, brand name jeans and sneakers, those cool body piercings, none of which they need. All of which they want.  All of which come at considerable cost.

    When a child gets everything it wants, it becomes a self-centered brat, sure that the world revolves around fulfilling his/her every desire, and they’re only happy for a few minutes after getting the latest toy.

    I’m growing more and more convinced that the same is true of adults.  Too many of us (I’m speaking mostly of Americans here, but Europeans are hardly immune from rampant wanting) believe happiness comes from fulfilling every desire. Look at the starter castles that fill our new neighborhoods, with three and four-car garages, multiple huge bedrooms, and I’m sure high-end, luxury kitchens and playrooms.   

    But it’s a dead end, an addiction to gratification, a wants-based culture that delivers happiness only at a price.

    Or as Greg Brown puts it: “We have no knowledge and so we have stuff.  And stuff with no knowledge is never enough.”

    Human needs are actually few and simple:  Clean air and water, decent food, a bit of exercise, shelter, something to occupy their minds and bodies, socializing, and some sense of contributing to the larger good.  That’s all we actually need for mental and physical health. 

    I was reminded of this when I shared dinner last week with two acquaintances who are facing serious health problems. One has a terminal disease and has been told that he has less than a year to live. The other faces serious treatments, but the outcome seems positive.  It caused me to question my own wants and needs.

    They both agreed that their diseases have forced them to consider their real needs:  Close friends, intimate conversations, quiet sharing evenings, simple peace and quiet. 

    That’s all they need these days, and truth be told, all they want.

    Too bad the threat of death, rather than just living, teaches that simple lesson best.




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