In a fascinatingly philosophical bent for the greatest theoretical physicist to ever walk the planet, Albert Einstein once proposed that, “The most important decision we can make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Of course, that quote is almost always reduced to “Is the universe a friendly place?”
Though merely contemplating the Theory of General Relativity can make my brain hurt, that’s a question to which I actually can provide an unequivocal answer. No! The Universe is not friendly! In fact, it’s quite a tragic place.
Think about it! The Earth has endured five mass extinctions, the latest of which was particularly dire. Dinosaurs roamed this planet for millions of years only to be wiped out in the blink of an eye by a hurtling space rock.
And make no mistake, there will be a sixth! If we don’t kill ourselves first, a gamma ray burst from a distant dying star, a well-aimed solar flare, or another large asteroid will most certainly do the trick. We essentially live in a cosmic shooting gallery, and just like it is with Russian roulette, one day we’ll draw the chamber with the bullet.
So, having answered Einstein’s question, that leaves us with two choices. The first is to cower under the shadow of the Sword of Damocles. The second is to be grateful for the happy accident that is this likely too-brief existence and enjoy it while we can.
Though it’s certainly taken me a while to figure that out, I seem to be one of the few folks who falls into the latter camp. Most of us seem to be more than content to allow tragedy to define us.
With tomorrow marking the one-year anniversary of the Aurora, Illinois, Henry Pratt shootings, as you might imagine, I’ve been considering this enigma a little more lately.
Of course we should remember and lament the untimely deaths of five fellow human beings, but what bothers me is how that horrific moment in time has become one of Aurora’s defining moments. Though I will give most of the newspapers credit for not printing the shooters name, they’re reviewing this horrific event as if it was some sort of previous sports championship.
Aurora strong? While I certainly understand that sentiment, Aurora has always been strong in my eyes.
Then the Aurora Art and History Center creates a Henry Pratt exhibit? Though I firmly believe their hearts are in the right place, not only does it seem somewhat morbid, but despite those good intentions, an exhibit can’t help but glorify a mass murderer and perhaps encourage copycats.
The same goes for all the recent news stories.
The sad truth is, Aurorans die inopportune deaths every day. In 2020 alone:
- 30 Aurorans will die in car crashes
- 410 will die of heart disease
- 362 will die of cancer
- 41 will die of the flu
- 50 will die of diabetes
- And 29 will take their own lives
But we rarely talk about them, they virtually never make the papers, and, aside from a gravestone, there are no memorials erected in their honor.
Please don’t get me wrong, even though I’m sure some of you will. I am devaluing no one’s death. As the great John Donne said in his famous sermon, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” but why do we give more import to truly tragic deaths like mass shootings?
It’s not as if this country has shown any capacity to finally deal with mental illness or prevent mass shootings, so that can’t possibly be the point. And would we really forget Henry Pratt if there were no exhibits or further newspaper accounts? I don’t think so.
When I think about Aurora, I’d rather remember going to River Edge Park, seeing the amazing Outlaws at Downtown Alive, enjoying the latest Paramount Broadway series, a Gillerson’s burger, taking my then-young boys to Sci-Tech, watching our Hispanic brothers and sisters celebrate Dia de los Muertos, working on the Mayor’s campaign team, the now absent Beacon-News building, and the many fascinating Aurorans I’ve met during my tenure as an opinion columnist.
That doesn’t mean I’ll ever forget the Henry Pratt victims, it’s just that I don’t ever want a mass shooting or a mass shooter to become my defining Aurora moment.
Yes! As previously postulated, the universe is not a friendly place and this existence is generally defined by tragedy. But even though that sword perpetually hangs above us, secured only by a scant thread, it doesn’t mean we have to let tragedy define us.
Aurora has been strong, it is strong, and it will be strong.