When I was probably 8 years old there was a terrible accident in Birmingham, Alabama. A family lost control of their car and it ran underneath a tractor trailer. The top of their car was torn off and they died a terribly gruesome death. You might be wondering how I know this story and why I would remember it 36 years later. Strangely it would become one of the most important and influential stories of my childhood.
Growing up my mom stayed at home, and whenever she needed to go out she would load me and my younger sister in the car and take us wherever she needed to go. Shortly after the accident was reported in the news, we were riding in the car and my mom told us the story of how this family had died. We were horrified to say the least. Maybe to make us feel better, or maybe to really try and keep us safe, my mom came up with a plan. As we were driving around she was going to prepare us. In preparation for the day when we might all be killed, she was going to yell “DUCK” randomly, and our instructions were to duck our heads as quickly as possible. We had to do it fast, because presumably we would be about to crash into a tractor trailer, and were mere seconds from decapitation. We were going to practice this move until it became second nature.
So for a few weeks we drove around Birmingham with my mother yelling “Duck!!” and me and my sister, on most occasions, looking at her without ducking, and then her saying something like “Well now you are both dead.” Remember that this was before car seats. Most of the time I was riding in the front seat with my sister in the back. We were really able to duck, but being kids, and having the memory of goldfish we never once got it right. After each failed test there were tears and promises to do better next time. We learned early that no matter what was happening in life, it could change in an instant. You can be having a great day and enjoying life and the next moment you are dead under a truck. I learned that we must live our lives as if that truck was just around the corner, every corner.
A few months ago I was reading “Daring Greatly” by Brenè Brown. As I was reading I came across the phrase “foreboding joy”. She calls it one of our vulnerability shields, armor that protects us from pain. It is that feeling of doom that overshadows even the most beautiful experience. The feeling that at any moment the other shoe is going to drop. She recommends practicing gratitude as a way of removing that armor and becoming more vulnerable. That is not an easy task for me. Let’s call it a growing edge. As a lawyer and now as a priest I come face to face with people every day who did metaphorically crash into the truck. They were going about their life and wham. Every week the message is reinforced and I forget that life goes on for billions of people not facing tragedy.
Sometimes I go a walk around Target just to remember the normalcy of life. I go and watch people buying birthday cards to remind myself that there are celebrations going on in this world. Somewhere in the next few days, someone will open that card and smile. Then I go home and give my family a hug and give thanks.