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“We are so happy to be alive. Life means a lot more today than yesterday,” said Panama City, Fla., School Board member, Jerry Register, the day after deranged gunman, Clay Duke, opened fire on the school board and the school Superintendent William Husfelt.
Looking into the barrel of a handgun has an interesting way of bringing life into focus. For Register and the others who endured what must have seemed to them at the time to be the longest school board meeting ever, life would, could never be the same - at least that’s what they said in the days following their harrowing experience. The threat of losing life can give deeper meaning to life, once it’s returned.
In an effort to calm Duke, the school Superintendent spoke of his wife and family, and how he wanted to live and enjoy his loved ones. Later, in an interview with Anderson Cooper, Husfelt said, “I do not have a death wish. I know if I were to die today, I know where I’m going and I was fine with that, but I did not want everyone in that room killed.”
People who have had close encounters with death often talk about how important family, friends, and eternity become in that moment of suspense between life and death, that moment of transition from death in the third person, “People die,” to death in the first person, “I’m about to die.” One’s “to-do” list gets pared down rather quickly.
And what about the gunman, Clay Duke? Did he have similar thoughts of family, friends, and eternity before he placed his gun to his own head? Or, was he incapable, in that moment, of thinking such rational thoughts?
“The economy and the world just got the better of him. And, along with his bi-polar, it just set him up for this horrible event,” his wife said.
Is it coincidental that this shocking event happened during Christmas season? Christmas - the season of joy, of anticipation, of holiday fun - glides precariously above the turbulent surface of other emotions: despair, doom, depression, anger, and hate. And sometimes, those emotions invade Christmas, upending it in abrupt ways.
What is it about the Christmas season that brings this out in people? Is it the shopping, the shoppers, the cards, the decorations, the gifts, the parties, and the greed that cause the impatience, the frustration, the anger, the hatred that is expressed in the rudeness, the meanness, the threats, the cursing and even the violence? It’s Christmas season: nerves are on edge; finances are stretched; emotions are frayed; people explode.
But for a few, like Mr. Duke, it goes beyond that. It spirals downward into hatred and violent actions.
Whether Christmas stress was a catalyst for Duke’s actions is something we will probably never know. His story will soon be lost for most people, another faded news item for all except those directly involved in the sad event. And that in itself is sad because the story can remind us during this season that savoring the gift of life in each moment can quell the despair, the anger, and hatred that accompany a season that is supposed to proclaim joy, hope, and peace. And it might even cure the sickness of a desperate soul like Clay Duke, who could be your neighbor, or co-worker, or friend, or family member, or you.
Somehow, it’s comforting to know life was really no different that night Christ was born: no room in the inn; taxes to be paid; dirty, irritating people everywhere; a menacing government demanding more; trouble and sorrow on every corner.
And there - in that small little corner of nowhere, a place where it was said, no good thing could possibly come, where the poor were oppressed and the rich gloated - he was born: “Peace on earth, and mercy mild; God and sinner reconciled.” And yes, by the way: life for all who come to him - a life more meaningful today than yesterday. Everyday.
Editor’s note: You can write to David B. Whitlock, Ph.D, at email@example.com and visit his website, davidbwhitlock.com.