That old saying that compares opinions to an individual piece of anatomy came to my mind this week as I listened to a press conference concerning the shootings at Virginia Tech.
It's probably not a good idea to recite the saying in a spiritual column, so let me give you the Norris paraphrase: "Opinions are like the opening on the south end of our torso -- everyone has one."
The opinions I heard, couched in questions, began with inane phrases like, "Don't you think you could have . . .?" or "Shouldn't you have . . .?" or "Wasn't it really your responsibility . . .?"
It was a chorus of woulda, coulda shoulda.
While the questions had me cringing a bit, I think it's fair to say the questions reflect a deep fantasy we all have; namely that we can prevent death if we try hard enough.
The fantasy is ingrained in us from an early age as we learn things like fire prevention, drug abuse prevention, stranger awareness and pedestrian safety. Yet the truth is you could learn all these things -- and even become a certified instructor -- and you still won't prevent a determined stranger, high on PCP, setting you afire with gasoline while you're crossing the street on a green light.
We've made some progress in making this country a safer place since 9-11, but as long as madmen exist who care less about their lives than they do ours, human tragedy will remain. And to think otherwise means we don't reside in the U.S.; we're living in denial.
So what are we supposed to do? Do we simply acclimate ourselves to live with the reality of death at the hands of madmen or misguided zealots? Do the shootings at Luby's Cafeteria, Columbine and Virginia Tech condemn us to live among madmen? After all, didn't even the Psalmist lament that man's "heart is desperately wicked"?
That outlook is only going to guide us into the darkness, and I wouldn't recommend it.
I think the spiritual approach is that we must learn to live until we die. That's a hard thing to do sometimes. The truth is that many people die long before they are pronounced dead. They live in so much fear of death that the heart of who they are ceases long before they die.
The Christian scripture reflects some of this teaching when it says "It is appointed unto a man once to die." The teaching admonishes us not only to be ready to meet God, but it also calls us to live our lives boldly --as boldly as one might who has suddenly received a terminal diagnosis.
Some might say metal detectors, gun control laws or even banning cargo pants would prevent another massacre like Virginia Tech, but my guess is any attempt to ban madness will be futile. At the end of the day, I have to say if the fear of death stops me from living, loving and longing for a peaceful future, then tragedies like Virginia Tech and the World Trade Center will kill my spirit long before I die.
I think that spirit was best portrayed in the wish my friend Tamara Chin expressed this week: "Let's go Hokies, with spirit, with identity, with camaraderie, with eyes to the future and not dwelling on existentialism or navel gazing. Let's go . . . Let's live . . . Let's be who we are and be the best of it . . . Let's be among our futures what was denied in the futures of the fallen."
Yes, the events of April 2007 will remind us that death is close, but life can be closer, and I choose life.
Burkes is a civilian hospital chaplain and an Air National Guard chaplain. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.