Live with hope

Friday, April 20, 2007

Parents of college-age children -- or children who have been through college -- have been universally vocal this week about campus safety in the wake of the killings at Virginia Tech.

As I look back on the college days of our two sons, I don't recall worrying about their personal safety.

Older son went to MIT in Cambridge, Mass., a well-heeled bastion of higher education with Harvard University just down the street. There were a couple of times, when we heard unsavory news from Boston, that we were prompted to call our son on the pretense of getting his on-the-scene perspective when, in fact, we wanted to hear his voice.

Parents are like that.

Younger son went to Kansas State University's School of Technology in Salina, where a former Air Force base provided a campus setting for aviation, civil engineering and computer science majors.

Mayhem in Salina? No. The thought never crossed our mind. Tornadoes in Salina? Yes. When those greenish-gray clouds roared across the western Kansas prairie, we called to make sure younger son had sought shelter, usually to find out that he preferred to imitate his father by running outside to watch the sky whenever storm sirens went off.

Sons are like that.

The most emotional scenes from Blacksburg, Va., this week were those showing parents reuniting with sons and daughters. Or being confronted with the official word that their son or daughter was in the morgue but could not be seen because of inadequate facilities.

When a loved one is dead, there is an overwhelming desire to see for yourself. Perhaps it's part of accepting the death. Or the knowledge that physical bonds are about to be severed forever. What could be more gut-wrenching than being told your child is dead, but you can't confirm it with your own eyes?

Thinking back on the events of this week, I am reminded that safety -- the safety of an entire nation -- was much on the minds of Americans in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. We realized that a free society cannot be truly open if it sets out to guarantee the personal safety of every person, knowing some of us are kooks who know how to make bombs. While a nation of laws intends to protect its citizens, individual freedom is the first victim of terrorism.

The loved ones of federal employees who went to work that fine spring day in Oklahoma City were concerned about traffic, deadlines and lunch plans. That dozens of them would be dead or maimed by the time the sun set never crossed their minds.

A free society is like that.

Students at Columbine High School, where firearms were banned and elaborate security plans had been thought out well in advance, never expected to hear gunshots or see blood running down the hallway.

An institution of learning is like that.

The amazing fact is that, in freedom-loving lands around the world, the person whose brain has snapped has access to just about every corner of our lives, public or private.

And there is no way under the sun to say that everyone who leaves home in the morning will return safe and well in time for dinner.

We humans are, however, equipped with trust in matters over which we have no control.

We believe the elevator will go up when we push the button and will stop where we want to get off without plunging to the basement.

We believe the airplane we board in St. Louis will land safely at our destination and the free Coke and mouthful of peanuts will be tasty.

We believe that it is human nature to seek good and preserve life, both of which will result in our well-being.

In short, we humans thrive on hope rather than live by the dictates of fear.

We go to work. We go to school. We go out to eat. We play. We mingle with large groups of people we don't know. We worship. We delight at the first glimpse of a newborn child. Sometimes we walk to the edge of a cliff for a better view of the world.

And we expect to live to tell about it.

That's what keeps us going.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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