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When We Notice That Life is Fragile

Jody McVittie, MD

The deaths this week in Newtown, Connecticut have called me to reflect again on how fragile life is. This was a loud call. Lives got interrupted suddenly and there is an urgent voice in me that says, “This should not have happened!” Schools are “supposed” to be safe. First-graders aren’t supposed to be murdered. Caring adults who have devoted their lives to the next generation should not have their lives cut short. broken heart

And life is fragile. The call to notice this is always there, but in a way we can ignore. And we do. It is easier to move through life without always being aware of its tenuousness; that it could disappear at any moment. Instead many of us have the privilege of pretending that we can actually prevent tragedy from visiting our neighborhoods or our loved ones. We make plans, have dreams and create expectations. We begin to believe that the sense of order we’ve developed for ourselves is the way life “should be.”

Deep down we know it is an illusion. As a physician I sat witness to families who had done “everything right” and whose lives were catapulted down difficult paths they did not anticipate, imagine or want. By what? By fate? An act of God? We search for meaning when we don’t have answers. These are people I knew, cared for and yes, loved; people with heart wrenching stories and no real way of making meaning.

Walking down these “darker” paths of life illuminated by the courageous human beings who were my patients I learned to listen to another call. They taught me about slowing down, about noticing the subtleties of love and forgiveness, about noticing beauty, about living in the moment, about gratitude. And about love. This other path is actually there for each of us everyday and yet mostly we walk about on our own illusion of solid ground, busy being busy, focusing on the future or what we have to “get done” and then….we can actually miss each other, miss the connections that are so rich…and not even notice.

There are lots of calls right now for changing public policies about guns and mental health. Those are important. And there is another opportunity. Maybe, as we notice our own broken hearts and our own fears we can also pause and use this moment to acknowledge the fragility of life and the opportunity to be grateful for the people we hold dear; to forgive their foibles and to value the richness they bring to our lives. Perhaps that will show up as slowing down, having a meal together, some additional tenderness, a moment with a neighbor who needs help, a hug that lasts a few seconds longer or a heartfelt “I love you.” It may be reaching out to someone or some group who is in need. We may be able to reset our own compasses to reclaim what is really important in our own lives. As Brené Brown notes, it is through our vulnerability that we find the whole-heartedness we seek